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Analysis: How the Trump-Kim meeting compares to the great summits of history

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President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un took a walk together during their meetings with Singapore. Trump said ‘very good’ and ‘excellent relationship’ to reporters. (June 12) AP

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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.

“That sense of disproportion that adds to the sense of oddity about this,” said historian David Reynolds, author of Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century. “It’s a big guy and a little guy, and neither of these men are in either way predictable, really.”

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Most modern summits are often carefully choreographed, planned years in advance, and filled with “family photos” and other moments designed more for their visual effect than substantive work.

So President Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hearkens back to a bygone era of high-risk summits where the outcome is not preordained.

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Related: Five unforgettable presidential summit meetings

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.

More: Trump says U.S. won’t endorse G-7 joint statement with world leaders, accuses Trudeau of ‘false statements’

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.

Trump, Kim historic summit in Singapore

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with

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
A South Korean newspaper deliveryman collects newspapers

A South Korean newspaper deliveryman collects newspapers in Seoul reporting the summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12, 2018.  JUNG YEON-JE, AFP/Getty Images
President Trump gestures as he speaks to reporters

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
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly listens to President

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly listens to President Trump speak during a press conference following the historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018.   SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images
President Trump waves from Air Force One after the

President Trump waves from Air Force One after the historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore on June 12, 2018.   SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images
President Trump holds up a document signed by him and

President Trump holds up a document signed by him and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un following a signing ceremony.  SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un looks at his document

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un looks at his document at a signing ceremony with President Trump.  SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (L) and President

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (L) and President Trump leave following a signing ceremony.  SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images
President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un

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
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un walks with President

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un walks with President Trump at the start of the summit.  SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images
Pedestrians in Tokyo look at a screen displaying live

Pedestrians in Tokyo look at a screen displaying live news of the meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump.  MARTIN BUREAU, AFP/Getty Images
North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un shakes hands with President Trump at the start of their historic US-North Korea summit in Singapore.  SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images
South Koreans at the Seoul Railway Station watch live

South Koreans at the Seoul Railway Station watch live coverage of President Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.  CHUNG SUNG-JUN, Getty Images
President Trump shakes hands with North Korea leader

President Trump shakes hands with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un at the Capella resort on Sentosa Island in Singapore.   EVAN VUCCI, AP
President Trump meets with North Korea's leader Kim

President Trump meets with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.  SAUL LOEB, AFP/Getty Images
People watch a television screen showing live footage

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
President Trump's motorcade enters Sentosa Island where

President Trump’s motorcade enters Sentosa Island where the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take place at the Capella Hotel in Sentosa, Singapore.  Wong Maye-E, AP
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's motorcade leaves

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s motorcade leaves the St. Regis Hotel en route to the summit.  YONHAP, EPA-EFE
Singapore police stand guard in front of members of

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
Singapore police patrol outside the Capella Hotel in

Singapore police patrol outside the Capella Hotel in Sentosa, Singapore.  MAST IRHAM, EPA-EFE
North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, center, is escorted

North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, center, is escorted by his security delegation as he visits Marina Bay in Singapore, June 11, 2018, ahead of Kim’s summit with President Donald Trump.  Yong Teck Lim, AP
President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with

President Donald Trump listens during a meeting with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ahead of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, June 11, 2018, in Singapore.  Evan Vucci, AP
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is seen in a television

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 car carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un makes

A car carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong Un makes its way through downtown Singapore on June 11, 2018.  Wong Maye-E, AP
Throngs of onlookers watch President Donald Trump's

Throngs of onlookers watch President Donald Trump’s motorcade leave the Istana presidential residence in Singapore on June 11, 2018 in Singapore.   Ore Huiying, Getty Images
A man watches a TV screen showing file footage of President

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
Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan takes

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan takes a selfie with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on the Jubilee bridge at the Esplanade in Singapore, June 11, 2018.   LYNN BO BO, EPA-EFE
Singapore security personnel stand guard near the the

Singapore security personnel stand guard near the the St. Regis hotel, where North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is staying in Singapore, June 11, 2018.  LYNN BO BO, EPA-EFE
President Donald Trump shakes hands as he meets with

President Donald Trump shakes hands as he meets with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ahead of a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, June 11, 2018, in Singapore.   Evan Vucci, AP
Singapore police block off the Jubilee bridge ahead

Singapore police block off the Jubilee bridge ahead of a visit from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 11, 2018 in Singapore.  Chris McGrath, Getty Images
The motorcade carrying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,

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

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

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
President Donald Trump waves upon his arrival to his

President Donald Trump waves upon his arrival to his hotel in Singapore on June 10, 2018, ahead of a planned meeting with North Korea’s leader.   ANTHONY WALLACE, AFP/Getty Images
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, and Singapore

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talk during their meeting at the Istana Presidential Palace in Singapore on June 10, 2018.   WALLACE WOON, EPA-EFE
People look at President Donald Trump's arrival at

People look at President Donald Trump’s arrival at the airport on TV screens in the International Media Center for the DPRK-US Singapore Summit in Singapore on June 10, 2018.   HOW HWEE YOUNG, EPA-EFE
Singapore military personnel patrol in front of the

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

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