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When to talk and when to walk

In the spring of 2014, after Russia annexed the Crimea, the German chancellor Angela Merkel took to the air. She jetted some 20,000 km around the globe, visiting nine cities in seven days – from Washington to Moscow, from Paris to Kiev – holding one meeting after another with key world leaders in the hope of brokering a peace-deal. Haunted by the centenary of 1914, Merkel saw summitry as the only way to stop Europe from “sleepwalking” into another great war.

Face to-face encounters at the highest level clearly still matter, even in our age of email and Skype, cellphones and video-conferencing. The word ‘summit’ came from Churchill in 1950. But arguably the desire of leaders to meet is almost innate. Having made it to the top of their own political system, they yearn for new challenges and relish the chance to compete on the world stage. Tired of the dank foothills of domestic politics, these new statesmen and women now set their sights on the peaks of global affairs where the air seems clear and heady.

The classic decades for Cold War summitry were the 1970s and 1980s. In 1972, Richard Nixon made pioneering visits to the capitals of the communist world, Beijing and Moscow, ushering in an era of détente between ideological antagonists who had previously treated the Cold War as a zero-sum game: ‘I win only if you lose.’ In Europe, the encounters between Willy Brandt of West Germany and Willi Stoph of East Germany in 1970 were similarly path-breaking, opening the way to ‘de facto’ mutual recognition. These summits were not only matters of policy and deals; they were journeys of reconnaissance in cross-cultural relations. Ideological foes often seem like alien forces but summitry can help in what we call “de-othering” the “other” and thereby initiate a process of rapprochement.

President Reagan's first meeting with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at Fleur D'Eau during the Geneva Summit in Switzerland, 19th November 1985. Photo by White House Photo Office, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
President Reagan’s first meeting with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev at Fleur D’Eau during the Geneva Summit in Switzerland, 19 November 1985. Photo by White House Photo Office. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Once bridges have been built, they need constant maintenance through regular communication. In the late 1970s, the West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt was an avid practitioner of what he called ‘Dialogpolitik.’ Schmidt argued that a leader must always try to put himself in the other guy’s shoes in order to understand their perspective on the world and construct compromises that are viable. For this reason he favoured informal summit meetings to exchange views privately and candidly, rather than grand choreographed occasions that played to the media gallery. In our own day US Vice-President Joe Biden has adopted a similar approach to diplomacy, stressing the need to gauge the other guy’s “bandwidth” by building personal relationships, so that you can “make more informed judgments about what they are likely to do or what you can likely get them to agree not to do.”

Sometimes summitry can be truly transformative. After the ‘New Cold War’ of the early 1980s, the four superpower summits between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985-8 generated a chain-reaction that cut nuclear arsenals, helped defuse the Cold War, and inaugurated an era of genuine cooperation between USA and the USSR. This culminated in their unprecedented partnership during the first Gulf War of 1991, when President George H.W. Bush spoke headily about ‘A World New Order.’ Meanwhile, the European Cold War was transcended not merely by the East European revolutions of 1989 but through the peaceful unification of the two Germanies in 1990. This historically incredible feat can be attributed in large measure to the cooperation between Bush, Gorbachev, and Helmut Kohl, the West German chancellor, who used summitry to settle the ‘German Question’ via international agreement.

The ‘transformative summitry’ of 1985-91 depended on a creative tension between change and stability. Americans and Russians were no longer ideological antagonists – the Bush-Gorbachev summit at Malta in 1989 reflected a new spirit of entente based on what they called shared ‘democratic’ and ‘universal’ values – yet the USA and USSR were still the pre-eminent superpowers and, as such, the two pillars of global order. But after the Soviet Union broke apart at the end of 1991 and the bipolar framework collapsed, this essential stability had gone.

In the 1990s, Americans luxuriated in their status as ‘sole superpower’ – expressed in their unique capacity for military power-projection worldwide and in a ‘New Europe’ built around an enlarged EU and NATO reaching right up to the borders of Russia. This is the edifice the Kremlin has sought to challenge in recent years. Indeed, after the economic implosion and political chaos of the Yeltsin years, Moscow’s sense of marginalization in world affairs generated a widespread desire to revive Russia as a great power. Since Vladimir Putin took command, this has been his prime objective – with Syria, Ukraine, and Crimea as today’s flash-points. Many pundits now ask whether the Cold War has returned, especially after the June 2016 Warsaw summit when NATO committed itself to the unprecedented deployment of Allied forces in Poland and the Baltic states.

And here’s where we return to Merkel and summit diplomacy. The German Chancellor’s approach has been carefully balanced: insistent on maintaining a strong NATO military posture while also emphasizing the need to keep open lines of communication with Putin. Merkel is surely right. The history of the 1970s and 1980s shows that there is always a delicate balance to be struck between dialogue and defense – deciding when to reach out and when to stand tall, when to talk and when to walk.

So summitry involves nerve-wracking judgement-calls for leaders: it requires hard calculations about opportunity, timing and personality – as challenging in the era of Merkel and Putin as in the days of Nixon and Brezhnev or Reagan and Gorbachev. Parleying at the summit is a matter of vision and skill, nerve and guts. Yet for those who are successful there is, perhaps, the chance to become a Maker of History. Here lies the perennial and fateful attraction of summitry.

Feature image credit: German Chancellor Angela Merkel points to a badge on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lapel in Heiligendamm, G8 Summit 2007. Photo REGIERUNGonline / Kühler. Fair Use via The Press and Information Office of the Federal Government of Germany.

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