Summits past and present

VERSAILLES, Munich, Yalta, Geneva, Glassboro, Vladivostok, Camp David. Famous and not-so-famous cities have become synonymous with summits of the world's leaders.

For better or worse, it is evident that summits are a fixture of modern diplomacy. Yet there has not been a meeting of the leaders of the two most powerful nations of the nuclear age since 1979.

If we are to guard against expecting too much from the rituals of summitry, especially in the television age, we cannot afford to go so long without candid discussion of our deep differences with a nation with the same capacity as we have to destroy the planet in a matter of minutes. For several years, however, a Soviet-American summit has been blocked by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, by the attack on a civilian airliner, by too much of an ideological straitjacket here and there, by an ever-changi ng succession of leaders there.

Summitry seems to run in historical cycles. It was common for monarchs and chieftains to meet their principal rivals in earlier times. This practice fell into disuse in the 18th and 19th centuries -- the age of Talleyrand, as we might call it. Yet personal meetings between heads of state have become a distinct feature of the diplomatic landscape once again in the last half-century. From 1940 to 1980, American presidents took part in approximately 50 international meetings that could be called summits. T he ``Summit Seven,'' the yearly session of the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and Japan, has become an institution.

But before focusing on the first summit to return to Geneva since 1955, let me remind you of some high-level meetings that all of us have forgotten about -- some more spectacular than the multimedia extravaganza on tap in Geneva, some just as dramatic, many just as significant to the people of the day, though the nuclear balance of terror has raised the stakes immeasurably higher.

One of the most incredible summit meetings was that between Pope Gregory VII and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV at Canossa in 1077. Gregory, fearing an attack by Henry's legions, took refuge in a castle high in the Apennines. But there was no attack. Instead, for three days at the height of one of the most severe winters in Italy, Henry -- unarmed, barefoot, in rags -- begged for removal of his excommunication. Impressed, Gregory granted the request, though his forces were at odds with Henry's two year s later.

Imagine the scene, as Will Durant recounts it, in the early summer of 1520, when the Kings of England and France met on the Field of the Cloth of Gold: ``Here in an open space near Calais, . . . [f]our thousand English noblemen, . . . dressed in the colorful silks, flounces, and lace of late medieval costume, accompanied Henry [VIII] as the young red-bearded King rode on a white palfrey to meet Francis I . . . MDB R. The political and marital alliance of the two nations was confirmed. The happy monarchs even wrestled, and Francis risked the peace of Europe by throwing the English King. With characteristic French grace, he repaired his faux pas by going, early one morning, unarmed and with a few unarmed attendants, to visit Henry in the English camp. It was a gesture of friendly trust which Henry understood. The monarchs exchanged precious gifts and solemn vows.''

Not all of the earlier summits took place in grand style. In 1807, Napoleon and Czar Alexander met on a raft in the Niemen River at Tilsit. Though victorious in battle, Napoleon observed proper protocol in peace -- stationing the raft equidistant from the banks to emphasize Alexander's dignity.

To be sure, we will not witness the same circumstances at an American-Soviet summit in 1985. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev will not joust or wrestle, or even exchange solemn vows. Nor stand on a raft in the middle of Lake Geneva. Their retinues will be clothed not in plumes and lace, but pin-striped suits and earphones. Amid tight security precautions, the leaders will be whisked by limousine to each other's headquarters; they will speak to global audiences in the glare of television lights. They will, no doubt, spend more time polishing images than probing issues.

Yet many features of ancient summits are bound to resurface next month as they have in more recent meetings, as they must if this meeting is to succeed in any meaningful manner.

Face to face, for example, the President and the Soviet leader confront the same dilemmas as all leaders in such circumstances have confronted. They must try to reconcile fundamental differences and mutual interests. They must balance a desire for dialogue and a demand for respect. They are bound to engage in the give-and-take of negotiation which cedes no principle but seeks common ground to relieve tensions, tensions not just between two nations but between East and West, tensions between two differen t conceptions of the governance of man, tensions which if allowed to reach the breaking point could lead to something far worse than a Thirty Years' War.

We can learn, too, from more recent summits. Versailles, for instance, ran too long and dealt with far too many issues. A President learned to his cost that he could not make agreements overseas for which he had not galvanized support at home.

At Munich, another leader learned that one meeting, and one agreement, cannot hold back aggression nor paper over barbarity. A meeting in Tehran demonstrated the need for thorough preparation, another at Yalta the dangers of excessive expectations.

Yet, if we must not look ahead with rose-tinted glasses, I hope we can elevate our sights beyond thinking of this summit as little more than a photo opportunity. It was reassuring to hear President Reagan say he is prepared for real discussions. It was encouraging to see Mr. Gorbachev begin to put serious proposals on the table after months of artful maneuvering.

We must not be swayed, however, by a certain institutional advantage enjoyed by the Soviets in the art of pre-summitry. Whereas a US president must face a sometimes hostile congress, a demanding press, and a suspicious public, the tightly closed Soviet system ensures discipline and suggests direction.

As we reflect on lessons of past summits, especially the more successful of them, we find one constant: thorough preparation. Whatever the record of summits, and many have done little but trace fleeting images across a harsh landscape, the exercise of preparation itself is beneficial. It forces antagonists to examine sources of conflict, to inspect each other's motives more closely, to throw light upon possible new paths to compromise.

Agreements, of course, are not the sole or the most important objective of summits. Agreements on secondary issues, however, can help build more cooperation and confidence into what is destined to be a difficult long-term relationship. Personally, I would hope this summit would produce specific accords on trade, terrorism, nuclear risk reduction centers, the Olympic Games. Formal agreements on larger, more complex issues such as arms control and human rights may be virtually impossible in two days of ta lks, but the stage can be set for more constructive dialogue in ensuing meetings.

And that's what counts -- dialogue, communications, a candid exchange of views on the most contentious differences. Some headway is being made today after a prolonged period of megaphone diplomacy. American and Soviet officials have talked about the Middle East, Africa, and Asia in recent months. Serious proposals to reduce our nuclear arsenals are being exchanged right now. Some Soviet dissidents may be released.

Even if the summit does not produce a formal communiqu'e, it can expand this process, an absolutely vital one if our two nations are to stay away from escalation of conflicts and turn back from the nuclear precipice.

If the summit in Geneva does no more than deepen understanding of our respective problems and remind us of our responsibilities, by broadening the dialogue and by establishing a more realistic basis for our relations, it could be considered a success.

Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R) of Maryland is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.




Save for later


Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items


Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items


Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items