Summits are happening a lot right now, thanks primarily to the interest — at least for the moment — of United States President Donald Trump in meeting and mingling. Critical commentary along with other media attention pursue him, which means summitry is at a pinnacle these days.
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un also deserves credit for the current vogue. His country went through a century of harsh occupation and dictatorship. Imperial Japan occupied all of Korea from early in the 20th century until defeat in war in 1945, and then the Soviet Union installed the current brutal Kim regime.
Trump left a Group of Seven economic summit in Canada to meet with Kim in Singapore on June 12. A summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin is coming up.
Allied leaders during World War II met regularly. The talks among U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain, and Premier Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union redrew borders in Europe and elsewhere while fighting the Axis powers.
Churchill used the term “summit” to refer to such talks at the top. According to Cambridge University historian David Reynolds, in his 2009 book “Summits: Six Meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century,” the great British leader employed the word this way in a speech in Edinburgh Scotland in February 1950, probably because of the global media attention focused on efforts by climbers to scale Mount Everest in the Himalayas.
Churchill returned to the imagery in a House of Commons speech in May 1953. At this time, British explorer Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa mountaineer Tenzing Norgay were striving to scale Everest. They reached the top at the end of the month. Credit Ben Zimmer for providing this fascinating history in a column last month in The Wall Street Journal.
Summits have a mixed history, as do efforts to surmount mountain peaks. President Barack Obama experienced both success and failure. Showing initiative, the new U.S. chief executive met with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev in July 2009. The leaders agreed on a framework to reduce nuclear weapons and permit U.S. forces to cross Russian territory to support military operations in Afghanistan.
Later, Obama blundered badly in an ill-conceived much-touted Arab summit at the White House and Camp David during May 13-14, 2015. Only two of the six countries invited, Kuwait and Qatar, ultimately sent their top leaders. Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent lower level government representatives.
This showed lack of respect for Obama, along with remarkably inept U.S. political calculation. White House spokesperson Josh Ernest compounded the error by naively emphasizing that those attending were in fact the most appropriate government representatives. The primary lesson is that good intentions and focus on speeches rather than the hard work of detailed policy ultimately means failure.
President Richard Nixon and associates did exactly the sort of difficult labor required, then moved on to summits as conclusion to their work. The SALT I treaties with the Soviet Union in 1972 stabilized the nuclear arms race, which by then had become intense. Simultaneously, U.S. dialogue with China, culminating in Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing, paid continuing dividends.
Leverage with both Beijing and Moscow was important to the 1973 accord ending U.S. direct military involvement in Vietnam. Improving relations with China mitigated the effects of the strategic reversal resulting from Hanoi’s victory in that war.
Rhetoric is not enough.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact email@example.com.