WASHINGTON — Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. Kennedy and Khrushchev. Reagan and Gorbachev.
And now: Trump and Kim.
During World War II and through the Cold War, the most important global summits were often two- or three-day meetings between superpowers of equal standing, the U.S. president and the Soviet premier, who met to literally draw the map of the world
Tuesday’s summit in Singapore was shorter and more unpredictable, and it brought together the largest economy in the world and one so small and isolated that the International Monetary Fund can’t measure it. But the stakes were potentially just as high as the great summits of the last century.
For Trump, a one-on-one summit suits his negotiating style: Size up your adversary, establish a rapport and make a deal. “I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude,” he said last week. “It’s about willingness to get things done.”
It’s an attitude that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would have understood.
‘The Big Three’
It was the high-level meetings of allied powers in World War II that set the stage for summits that would define the world order in the 20th century.
Beginning with the Atlantic Conference in Newfoundland in 1941, Churchill — along with the U.S. president and later Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin — plotted strategy against Germany.
The “Big Three” met three times. At the last meeting, in Potsdam, Germany, President Harry Truman and his British and Soviet counterparts began the process of administering the a post-war peace. The decisions they made there — dividing Germany and its capital of Berlin into four zones of occupation by American, French, British and Soviet troops — would redraw the map of Europe for the rest of the century.
It was when Churchill was out of office in 1950 that he coined the idea of a “summit,” which capitalized on a public fascination with Mount Everest expeditions. Remembering the war conferences, he said a face-to-face meeting with the Soviet leaders could dispel misunderstandings that could lead to nuclear catastrophe.
“The idea appeals to me of a supreme effort to bridge the gulf between the two worlds, so that each can live their life if not in friendship, at least without the hatreds and maneuvers of the Cold War,” he said. “It is not easy to see how things can be worsened by a parley at the summit if such a thing were possible.”
Reynolds noted that the word summit conjured up “a perilous encounter between two adversaries” that could also open up “spectacular new vistas.”
“The instinct of many leaders — of which Trump is an example — is that I can sort anything out if I can get one-on-one with the other guy,” he said. “They made it to the top f their own domestic politics, they’re ambitious men and they want to play in the next league up.”
Two other ingredients would combine to make summits the hallmark of 20th-century diplomacy: The availability of air travel, which allowed world leaders to speak face-to-face instead of through ambassadors, and weapons of mass destruction, which gave the talks new importance and urgency.
Cold war, hot summits
Like Churchill, President John F. Kennedy had campaigned on a willingness to talk to the Soviets. “It is far better that we meet at the summit than at the brink,” he said. After being elected in 1960, he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev exchanged back-channel messages until they agreed to meet in Vienna for what Kennedy called “an informal exchange of views.”
Informal and heated, as it turned out.
Over two days in June 1961, Khrushchev berated Kennedy over Berlin and other issues, all but threatening nuclear war. The summit was largely viewed as a failure, leading to the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis. And for decades, the U.S. learned to never again go into a summit without a set agenda.
Richard Nixon resumed semi-regular Soviet summits, becoming the first president to visit Moscow in 1972. Those meetings led to some moderately successful arms control agreements. And Nixon also opened up Asia, becoming the first president to visit China.
But it was President Ronald Reagan who would provide some of the most dramatic summits in the history of the Cold War, meeting with Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev five times in just three years.
They largely postured in Geneva in 1985, but in Reykjavik in 1986 they came close to an agreement to ban all nuclear weapons, only to have the talks break down because Reagan would not agree to give up his space-based defense initiative derided by critics as “Star Wars.”
Those talks led to later breakthroughs on nuclear, chemical and conventional weapons.
‘Rise of the informals’
After the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended — or at least, took a respite — the most important global summits were no longer between nuclear powers, but economic powers. The Group of Seven (known for a time as the G-8 before Russia was expelled following its annexation of Crimea) began meeting in the 1970s, and the broader G-20 was created in 2008 to deal with the global financial crisis.
That marks a trend that Alan Alexandroff calls “the rise of the informals.”
Alexandroff, director of the Global Summitry Project at the University of Toronto, said those meetings have evolved from meetings of finance ministers into heads of governments — who, in keeping with the summit metaphor, are led around by lower-level officials known as “sherpas.”
“It’s the iceberg theory of summits. Underneath the leaders getting together on an annual basis there’s a lot of officialdom working to make it happen throughout the year,” he said.
All that preparation can dissolve in an instant. At the G-7 summit in Quebec last weekend, Trump pronounced the state of the economic alliance as being as strong as ever. “I would say that the level of relationship is a 10,” he said.
But hours later, after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau threatened retaliatory tariffs against U.S.-made goods, Trump changed his tune. He called Trudeau “very dishonest” and pulling out of a carefully crafted joint statement calling for “free, fair, and mutually beneficial trade and investment.”
Indeed, the success or failure of a summit often doesn’t become clear until days or weeks later.
“There’s always the problem of coming down from the summit, because the summit is a heady occasion for these leaders, and then confronting the reality at home,” Reynolds said.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Trump after taking part in a signing ceremony at the end of their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hailed their historic summit on June 12 as a breakthrough in relations between Cold War foes, but the agreement they produced was short on details about the key issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons. ANTHONY WALLACE, AFP/Getty Images
President Trump gestures as he speaks to reporters during a press conference after his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island, Singapore, June 12, 2018. HOW HWEE YOUNG, EPA-EFE
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during the expanded bilateral meeting as part of the summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island, Singapore. KEVIN LIM , THE STRAITS TIMES via EPA-EFE
People watch a television screen showing live footage of the summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore, at a railway station in Seoul. JUNG YEON-JE, AFP/Getty Images
Singapore police stand guard in front of members of the media outside the Capella Hotel, just before the expected arrival of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump for a historic summit, at Sentosa, Singapore MAST IRHAM, EPA-EFE
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is seen in a television monitor as speaks to the media about the upcoming meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the J.W. Marriott in Singapore, June 11, 2018. JIM LO SCALZO, EPA-EFE
A man watches a TV screen showing file footage of President Donald Trump, right, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a news program at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, June 11, 2018. Ahn Young-joon, AP
The motorcade carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, drives past on the street in Singapore on June 10, 2018. The North Korean leader met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ahead of a historic summit with President Donald Trump on June 12. LYNN BO BO, EPA-EFE
Erica Boland, right, a U.S. student based in Singapore and a supporter of President Trump, and her friend wave a flag as they wait for his arrival, outside the Shangrila hotel in Singapore on June 10, 2018. TED ALJIBE, AFP/Getty Images
A handout photo taken by Ministry of Communications and Information of Singapore on June 10, 2018 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arriving at Singapore International airport in Singapore. TERENCE TAN, AFP/Getty Images
Singapore military personnel patrol in front of the gate of the Istana Presidential Palace, where North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will meet in Singapore on June 10, 2018. MAST IRHAM, EPA-EFE