Friday, June 4, 2021

Peril at the Summit

Sixty years ago today, on June 4, 1961, the young, newly elected, evidently unprepared American President, John F. Kennedy, unwisely met in Vienna, Austria, with his Soviet counterpart Nikita Krushchev, who was neither young, nor new, nor unprepared. The result was disastrous and remains a reminder to all new American presidents of the dangers of engaging in such summitry. Unlike Kennedy, of course, President Biden, who is scheduled to meet with Vladimir Putin later this month in Geneva, is not young and is quite experienced in foreign policy. He is, however, like Kennedy before him new in the job and goes to the summit at a time when American prestige abroad is low. (Kennedy met with Krushchev less than two months after the dual humiliations of the Soviets' first-ever manned space flight and the U.S.' failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. It has long been believed that Kennedy's poor performance in Vienna strengthened Krushchev's hand and may have led directly to his ill-fated 1962 decision to put missiles in Cuba.)

There is always peril at the summit. By its nature, a summit meeting means an enormous investment in national prestige. The pressure to produce - or to appear, at least, to produce - is correspondingly enormous and accordingly dangerous. Even if President Biden is better prepared and thus less apt to be bullied than Kennedy was, the danger of making the meeting an end in itself, of claiming something to show for it in order to make the exercise seem to have been worth it, will be very great. 

Yet what are the prospects at present for some sort of breakthrough in our relations with Putin? Perhaps there are particular practical problems that can be resolved and areas of cooperation that can be encouraged. That is almost always the case. Even so, as such recent events as the cyber attacks on first the energy supply and then the meat supply suggest, the more fundamental challenges to our relationship remain for the present beyond resolution. 

Generally speaking, summits seem to work best when the ground has been well prepared prior to the actual meeting at the top. Assuming neither party actually expects to transform the other leader's personality or convert him to a different ideology, the way to make progress usually presupposes practical problems that can be negotiated at the lower level.

Where summits do works best is when the participants's experiences of each other have led them, if not actually to like each other, at least to develop some sort of interpersonal relationship that enables them to get beyond the inevitable posturing and national and ideological assertiveness. The problem is, of course, the other side of that coin. FDR famously tried to charm Stalin at Tehran and Yalta, and perhaps at some level he did, but that could not change Stalin's toxic personality or the ideological filter through which he saw the rest of the world or the military facts on the ground which tilted the balance of power in Stalin's favor. Can Biden realistically expect to soften someone so incorrigible as Putin any more than FDR could do with Stalin?

The nature of modernity, the directness of our communications capabilities, and the ease of personal travel have all made summits an ordinary, taken-for-granted component of ordinary diplomacy - in ways that would hardly have been imagined in the past. But because something is now easy to do and correspondingly expected, does not make it any less perilous in the long term.

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