- The Era of Epic Summitry
Should governments deal with their foreign adversaries by pursuing high-level talks or by refusing to negotiate at all? The question, an old one for political leaders and diplomats, has seldom been so explicitly debated as it was during the U.S. presidential campaign in 2008. Democratic nominee Barack Obama declared himself willing to meet face-to-face with the leaders of hostile nations, notably Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As long as American leaders practiced "aggressive, principled diplomacy" with a "clear-eyed understanding of our interests," Obama stated, there was little to fear. Republican John McCain, eager to tar his rival as dangerously soft on national security, would have none of it, contending there was no point in talking to extremists. Mc Cain insisted that a summit with Ahmadinejad would yield only "an earful of anti-Semitic rants and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another."1
David Reynolds's study of summit meetings during the twentieth century suggests that both candidates may have had a point. In some of the six summits that Reynolds examines, leaders of antagonistic nations failed to find common ground. Rather, they quickly encountered unbridgeable divides and, in the case of the 1961 conference between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, may have actually intensified international hostilities. In other instances, leaders achieved remarkable breakthroughs, reaching understandings of epochal importance. All in all, Reynolds writes, leaders who saw summitry as a way to build international harmony often suffered from a "grand illusion." But sometimes, he hastens to add, "they were right" (p. 435).
There is, of course, nothing terribly surprising about this conclusion. Only in a political climate where leaders such as McCain or George W. Bush could get away with rejecting all diplomatic overtures to hostile nations as abject appeasement could Reynolds's point merit serious consideration. Most readers—and surely most experienced policymakers—will have little difficulty accepting [End Page 616] his commonsensical view that high-level diplomacy is a messy, unpredictable business and that summit meetings have brought both grave dangers and great rewards. Most readers will also readily go along with Reynolds's contention that summits have achieved the most impressive results when leaders have prepared well, drawn on expert advice without conceding their own freedom of action, negotiated skillfully, and effectively implemented any agreements reached. The book is unlikely, in short, to alter anyone's outlook on the broad contours of recent diplomatic history.
It would be unfair, however, to go too far in criticizing Reynolds for producing a somewhat vanilla book. Despite the novelty of his focus on summits, Reynolds clearly intends the study not as a pathbreaking scholarly contribution so much as an introduction to twentieth-century diplomacy for non-specialist readers. Indeed, the book was published in conjunction with a three-part television series entitled "Summits," aired by the British Broadcasting Company in early 2008. Evaluated as a work of popular history, the study stands out for the clarity and judiciousness with which it narrates extraordinarily complex negotiations, the depth of the research underpinning its central chapters (even if they largely reaffirm familiar understandings of the summits in question), and the sharp analysis that Reynolds offers from time to time.
Perhaps Reynolds's most incisive interpretive foray is his attempt to tease out the reasons why some meetings bolstered international harmony and others did not. The least successful meetings, Reynolds writes, were "personal" summits such as the 1938 conferences between German dictator Adolf Hitler and British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and the 1961 Kennedy Khrushchev encounter. In those cases, leaders sought to ease international tensions by establishing personal rapport and using their individual powers of persuasion to get their way on disputed matters. Unsurprisingly, no amount of personal charm or persuasiveness stood any chance of resolving the deeply rooted antagonisms of pre-World War II Europe or the peak years of the Cold War. Somewhat more successful were...