Summits Should Not Just be for Crises

Main Image Credit US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit in 1986. Courtesy of Ronald Reagan Library/CC BY 2.0

As Presidents Biden and Putin meet for their first summit tomorrow, a former UK foreign secretary reflects on the significance of such occasions.

My introduction to summitry began in 1982 when I had just become Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office. I visited the UN in New York and met Javier Perez de Cuellar, then Secretary-General of the UN.

He impressed upon me that meetings between President Ronald Reagan and Yuri Andropov – then leader of the Soviet Union – or other world leaders should be so regular, and so taken for granted, that they would not be treated as failures because agreement had not been reached on a specific occasion. The rationale for such meetings should be to identify opportunities for progress and minimise the risk of misunderstanding.

Two years later I was present when Margaret Thatcher had her historic meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev at her country house at Chequers (described by the Foreign Office to the Russians as her ‘dacha’).

That meeting has gone down in history as a great success, but not because the two leaders reached agreement. The Iron Lady and the man about to become General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party agreed on very little. But by the end of their meeting they understood each other better, were impressed by each other’s personal qualities and, most importantly, had begun to trust each other. Hence Mrs Thatcher's remark that ‘Mr Gorbachev is a man with whom we can do business’.

I am a supporter of such summits between world leaders as long as too much is not expected from them. These considerations are relevant for the forthcoming summit meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin at Geneva later in June. Of course, Biden is no Reagan or Thatcher, and Putin is certainly no Gorbachev. But they have a similar need to understand each other better and they have much in common to discuss.

It seems pretty certain that they will not reach agreement – and may not even make any progress – on Ukraine, or on Russian hacking in the US, or on human rights. But there is important common ground on a number of issues, including nuclear weapons arms control, climate change and defeating global terrorism.

Furthermore, even if there is unlikely to be agreement on Ukraine, the meeting could provide an opportunity for Biden to deter Putin from further military adventurism in that country and to persuade him of the need for a political solution that respects Ukraine's irreversible status as an independent nation.

So summits can be useful – but not always. Theodore Roosevelt once said that the best way to conduct diplomacy was to ‘speak softly and wield a big stick’. Donald Trump's great failure was to do exactly the opposite, especially with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Trump's rhetoric was bellicose, but when rebuffed he had no stick to wield.

North Korea was not a sensible example of a summit at the level of heads of government. For Kim Jong-un, a meeting with the US president was a supreme objective that would boost his prestige, impress North Koreans and demonstrate that North Korea was now a major power in its own right. The summit with Trump was needed for image projection rather than as an opportunity to resolve differences. It is obvious that neither Putin nor Xi Jinping need meetings with a US president to demonstrate their status.

In Kim Jong-un's case, Trump should only have offered a summit meeting after most of the concessions and compromises on nuclear weapons had already been negotiated by their foreign ministers and senior diplomats. Instead, his immaturity led him to believe that his own personal charisma and diplomatic skills would so impress the North Korean dictator that he would sign whatever treaty was put before him. The result was an embarrassing fiasco for the US.

Not all summits are bilateral. With the G7 summit taking place in London this month, it is worth also considering the value of multilateral gatherings of heads of government. I attended one such meeting with John Major, the G7 summit in Lyon in 1996. It was not an event that changed world history. Indeed, it was forgotten soon after it concluded.

The original G5 was devised by French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing as an opportunity for informal discussion between heads of government over a long and secluded weekend. By the time of Lyon in 1996 there was little to no informality left. A vast contingent of the world's TV and press media were in constant attendance, presidents and prime ministers were constantly being interviewed live on camera, and the conference sessions were little more than a series of dull speeches read out one after the other.

Worst of all, most of the boring Final Communique had been drafted before the summit had even begun. Those responsible, this being a ‘summit’, were inevitably dubbed ‘sherpas’, but this terminology was the only thing these conferences had in common with the towering mountains of the Himalayas.

Summitry is bound to be much more difficult in today’s world of around 180 sovereign states, and with the need we now have for global solutions to global problems. Throughout the 19th century, until the end of the First World War, most of the world was controlled by five European powers – the UK, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia – with the US and Japan still to make their mark and China in apparent terminal decline. In the 20th century, the Munich Conference of 1938 and the ‘Big Three’ conferences at Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam during the Second World War reshaped the world for good or bad. Today’s world is much messier and more multilateral.

A summit should always be presented to the world in one of two ways. First, it will always be desirable for heads of government to have regular meetings – formal or informal – with each other to review what they have achieved and where they have failed, as well as to try and plan the future. This should happen between friends, as in NATO or the EU. But it should also happen regularly between rival countries, competitors and opponents. That is where there is the greatest risk that a misunderstanding could lead to hostility or even conflict.

The second type of summit is when there is the greatest urgency to resolve or ameliorate a political crisis or a risk of war, where the problems that have arisen can only be resolved by presidents and prime ministers today just as they were by emperors and kings in bygone ages. Wherever possible, such summits should only be convened when the diplomats and foreign ministers have already worked in the foothills and prepared the ground for the final ascent.

Sometimes, such as at Munich in 1938, such summits can do far more harm than good and end in infamy. But in Reykjavik in 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev helped ensure the peaceful end of the Cold War. Anwar Sadat's flight to Jerusalem in 1977, and subsequent treaty with Menachem Begin, ended military conflict between Israel and Egypt and led to the withdrawal of Israel from Sinai. Nelson Mandela and F W de Klerk ensured the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa. And Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong, meeting in Beijing in 1972, changed the world.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


The Rt. Hon. Sir Malcolm Rifkind KCMG QC

Distinguished Fellow

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