The Magazine

The Talking Cure

Sometimes it makes things worse.

Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By MAX BOOT
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Six Meetings that Shaped the Twentieth Century

by David Reynolds

Basic Books, 576 pp., $35

Nixon and Mao

The Week that Changed the World

by Margaret Macmillan

Random House, 432 pp., $27.95

Question: "In 1982 [sic], Anwar Sadat traveled to Israel, a trip that resulted in a peace agreement that has lasted ever since. In the spirit of that type of bold leadership, would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?"

Barack Obama: "I would."

With that off-the-cuff answer, given at a Democratic presidential debate last July, Barack Obama unwittingly launched a controversy that, almost a year later, shows no sign of dissipating. He might have responded differently--and spared himself a lot of agonized backtracking on the part of his aides and supporters--if he had been able to read beforehand David Reynolds's Summits.

Reynolds is a professor of international history at Cambridge whose previous book, In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, was a fascinating account of how Winston Churchill wrote his World War II memoirs. He is, to judge by Summits, a man of the moderate left, or so I gather from his use of stock phrases such as "rush to war" when discussing the diplomacy that led up to the invasion of Iraq. There is no reason to think that he intended this book to be an indictment of the Obama mindset. But that is how it reads.

To be sure, he presents the advantages of summits: "Face to face across the conference table, statesmen can sense each other's needs and objectives in a way that no amount of letters, phone calls, or emails can deliver. Summitry can also cut through bureaucratic obstacles that block progress lower down." But he also warns that "the potential dangers are immense." Those dangers loom especially large, at least to this reader, in his discussion of six major 20th-century summits, most of which did not have a very happy outcome.

In his introduction, Reynolds notes that the term "summit" was coined by Churchill in 1950 when he called for "another talk with the Soviet Union at the highest level"--or a "parley at the summit." The metaphor was inspired, Reynolds believes, by news accounts of the British expeditions to scale Mount Everest. While the term is of recent vintage, the practice of leaders meeting with one another is, of course, ancient. In centuries past, kings or emperors would meet, usually on the boundary of their domains, so as to avoid the submission implicit in one monarch visiting another's court. (A famous get-together of this sort occurred in 1807 between Napoleon and Czar Alexander I on a raft on the Niemen River. The result was the Treaty of Tilsit, which created a short-lived Franco-Russian alliance.)

Reynolds argues that a qualitative change in summitry occurred in the early years of the 20th century--"made possible by air travel, made necessary by weapons of mass destruction and made into household news by the mass media or newsreels and television." The first summit of this sort, he writes, was Munich--hardly a propitious beginning.

The Munich conference of September 29-30, 1938, was the third in a series of meetings held over the course of that month between the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and German chancellor, Adolf Hitler. The impetus was Hitler's bullying of Czechoslovakia over the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Germans living in its Sudetenland region. Paris was allied with Prague, and Chamberlain feared that if Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, the result would be a general European war. This he was determined to avoid at all costs, not least because he, along with the rest of the British government, was in the grip of exaggerated estimates of the potential havoc that German bombers could wreak on London.

Writes Reynolds:

In 1938 Nazi bombers lacked sufficient range to reach London from Germany: this only became possible in 1940 when Hitler controlled the coasts of Belgium and France. Here was a massive intelligence failure about weapons of mass destruction. It skewed defense policy toward airpower and diplomacy toward isolationism.

While fear was an important impetus for appeasement, Reynolds highlights another, less-known motivation: arrogance. The hubristic Chamberlain thought that, through force of personality, he could bring Herr Hitler around and change the course of history: "I have only to raise a finger & the whole face of Europe is changed," he wrote to his spinster sisters.