The Magazine

The Talking Cure

Sometimes it makes things worse.

Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By MAX BOOT
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One of those issues was Poland, where Stalin was determined to assure future Soviet domination. The Western leaders knew they could not stop him, but they wanted to at least "ameliorate" the situation, as Churchill put it. They didn't achieve even that much, since Stalin never had any intention of holding "free and unfettered" elections of the kind they demanded.

Both Churchill and Roosevelt oversold the "spirit" of Yalta when they got home, leaving their publics and successors unprepared for the descent of what Churchill in the following year would call an "Iron Curtain" across Europe.

It was an attempt to lower the resulting superpower tensions that created the conditions for what, after Munich, was surely the most disastrous summit of modern times. This was the meeting in Vienna on June 3-4, 1961, between Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy--a meeting that Barack Obama has, inexplicably, cited as evidence of the advantages of meeting your foes. Quite the opposite: It showed the dangers of rushing ill-prepared into a meeting at a disadvantageous moment.

Kennedy sought the two-day get-together to get a better sense of the Soviet leader. What he saw, and even more what Khrushchev saw in return, ratcheted up Cold War tensions. The Soviet leader was already unimpressed by the botched Bay of Pigs invasion on April 17. The Vienna talks confirmed his initial impression that his interlocutor was "very inexperienced, even immature"--not "a man of intelligence and vision," like his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower. This encouraged Khrushchev to bully Kennedy, warning him that "if the U.S. wants war, that is its problem."

Immediately after the summit, Kennedy told James Reston of the New York Times that the meeting had been the "roughest thing in my life." For a veteran of PT-109, that's saying something. He went on to complain that Khrushchev "just beat the hell out of me. So I've got a terrible problem. If he thinks I'm inexperienced and have no guts, until we remove those ideas we won't get anywhere with him." Bobby Kennedy thought this was "the first time the President had ever really come across somebody with whom he couldn't exchange ideas in a meaningful way." (One wonders if Obama has met such a person yet.)

Of course, the upshot of the Vienna summit was that Khrushchev went ahead with plans to build the Berlin Wall and, when Kennedy did not resist this provocative move, to install nuclear missiles in Cuba--what he called throwing "a hedgehog down Uncle Sam's pants." Reynolds contends that another result of Vienna was the growing American commitment to South Vietnam, undertaken by Kennedy to show that he was tougher than he looked at first glance.

"Their ill-tempered encounter, which degenerated into a test of virility," Reynolds writes, "constitutes a classic example of how not do summitry."

After Vienna, no American president rushed into another early summit, but none could entirely avoid the lure of these occasions, either. (Churchill once noted "how much more attractive a top-level meeting seems when one has reached the top!") The fourth summit that Reynolds focuses on is the 1972 meeting in Moscow between Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev, although he also gives considerable attention to the tête-à-tête earlier that year between Nixon and Mao Zedong--a meeting momentous enough to warrant its own book: Margaret Macmillan's grandiloquently titled Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World.

Both meetings were long in the making: They did not occur until the final year of Nixon's first term, and they were both preceded by what Macmillan describes as "three years of delicate feelers, of careful signals sent out and usually but not always received, of indirect contacts, of intense internal debates, and, finally, of direct negotiations." The culmination of these preparations came in trips to Beijing and Moscow by the man the press had dubbed "Super K"--national security adviser Henry Kissinger. Nixon and Kissinger, those two inveterate schemers, wanted to use an opening to Beijing to apply pressure on Moscow, and vice versa. One of their top goals was the isolation of North Vietnam: They hoped to win at the negotiating table with Hanoi's allies what Americans no longer had the willingness to fight for on the ground.

For a while the administration's diplomacy seemed to live up to the hype. But only for a while. In the wake of these summits, the United States and North Vietnam did reach agreement in 1973 on the Paris Peace Accords. Nixon and Kissinger sold this as a guarantee of South Vietnam's independence. But they had privately told the Russians, Chinese, and North Vietnamese that they simply wanted a "decent interval" between American withdrawal and Communist victory. What they got was an indecent interval. (Whether it would have been a different story if not for Watergate, as Nixon and Kissinger later claimed, is impossible to say. Probably not.)

The other achievements of Nixon and Kissinger's fabled summitry look little better in hindsight. The 1972 meeting with Brezhnev produced agreement on SALT (the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks), including the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, as well as a statement of Basic Principles of U.S.-Soviet relations. These laboriously crafted treaties did not slow the Soviet arms buildup or Soviet adventurism in the Third World, and before long, "détente" had become a millstone around the neck of Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford.

"The ultimate beneficiary of Nixon's summitry," Reynolds concludes, "was Leonid Brezhnev."

Of all Nixon's summits, the one that he was most proud of was the one with Mao, probably the greatest mass murderer in history. As he prepared to leave Shanghai, Nixon called his visit to China "the week that changed the world." Margaret Macmillan, the respected author of a history of the 1919 Versailles peace conference, endorses this "bombast" but does not really back it up. The momentous change in China did not occur as a result of an hour of "amicable and, at times, jocular" chitchat between Nixon and Mao but as a result of Mao's death in 1976 and the accession to power of the reformist Deng Xiaoping. Such internal shifts are always far more important than fleeting encounters between world leaders.

This elementary insight received further confirmation in the late 1980s when Soviet-American relations thawed to a far greater extent than they had in the 1970s. This was due to the coming to power in Moscow of a Communist reformer dedicated to reducing arms expenditures and in Washington of a conservative dedicated to consigning the "evil empire" to the "ash heap of history." Many of Ronald Reagan's early moves--raising the defense budget, increasing support for the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan and the Nicaraguan contras, launching the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)--were denounced at the time for being overly provocative. We know now that they helped pave the way for perestroika and glasnost, and the end of the Cold War.

It was Margaret Thatcher who first recognized that Mikhail Gorbachev was different from his predecessors: "I like Mr. Gorbachev," she said after meeting him for the first time in 1984. "We can do business together." His new foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, also proved more accommodating than his hard-line predecessor, Andrei Gromyko.

Reagan sought to take advantage of the opportunity by inviting the new Soviet leader to a parley. The meeting was held in Geneva in November 1985. Reagan immediately gained the advantage when he stepped outside into the cold to meet the Soviet leader without benefit of an overcoat, thus projecting an energetic aura. Behind closed doors he steadily parried Gorbachev's attacks and adamantly refused to trade SDI away in return for deep cuts in both sides' nuclear arsenals.

Gorbachev upped the ante the following year at the Reykjavik summit: He offered to abolish both the Russian and American nuclear arsenals in return for an end to Star Wars. But after flirting with a deal, Reagan wisely replied, "Nyet." Instead, he would eventually agree in 1987 to a more limited accord eliminating short-range and intermediate-range land-based nuclear missiles. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty included tough verification procedures that had been missing in previous arms-control pacts.

Without doubt the increasingly amicable talks between Gorbachev and his American counterparts--first Reagan, then George H.W. Bush--contributed to the peaceful end of the Cold War. But they were more symptoms than cause of this profound transformation in world affairs. The same might be said for the most successful example of summitry in recent history: the 13 days of meetings at Camp David in September 1978 among Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter, and their senior aides.

Carter deserves credit for orchestrating a breakthrough, but it would not have been possible if Israel and Egypt had not had leaders ready to make sacrifices for peace. Sadat had proved his seriousness the previous year by flying to Israel. Begin reciprocated by visiting Egypt. That laid the groundwork for the Camp David deal under which Egypt agreed to end its war with Israel and Israel agreed to return the conquered Sinai desert. Although, during the negotiations, Begin had repeatedly said he would not dismantle Israel's Sinai settlements, in the end he did just that, and his conservative Likud party backed him up.

This monumental achievement--the first peace accord between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors--has become the prime exhibit whenever anyone cites the virtues of talking to one's enemies. But as Bill Clinton learned in 2000, when he convened a copycat summit at Camp David between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, imitation can be not just unflattering but downright dangerous. Because Arafat was not as committed to peace as Sadat had been, the negotiations led not to a settlement but to another round of fighting. That is another warning (one that Reynolds does not mention) of the dangers of negotiations.

There is yet another omission in this book that Senator Obama would do well to ponder. Reynolds chronicles meetings between the leaders of Britain and Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union, Israel and Egypt--all countries of relatively similar -stature. Note what he doesn't describe, because it never happened: Dwight D. Eisenhower did not sit down with Kim Il Sung, John F. Kennedy did not chat with Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter did not break bread with Pol Pot, Ronald Reagan did not engage in repartee with the Ayatollah Khomeini. Why not?

The most obvious obstacle was the difference in stature: By meeting with these petty dictators, an American president would have granted them legitimacy and diminished his own standing. That might have been a price worth paying in return for a real breakthrough, but none of these leaders demonstrated a sincere desire for accommodation on any terms other than his own.

Neither has Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, Raúl Castro, Bashar Assad, or Hugo Chávez--the motley crew that Obama, assuming his campaign rhetoric is to be believed, proposes to meet during his first year in office. If any of them were willing to make Sadat-like concessions, no doubt President Bush (or President McCain) would be willing to talk with them, too. What sets Obama apart, and makes his pledge both eye-catching and dangerous, is his willingness to meet without "preconditions"--that is, without some good reason to believe in advance that something positive will emerge.

Obama must hope that his personal magnetism and savvy will carry the day: that, at worst, he will emerge with a better understanding of his adversary and, at best, with a Nobel Peace Prize. That is what Chamberlain, Kennedy, Nixon, and many other summiteers of the past thought as well. If the history of "parleys at the summit" teaches anything, it is that there is danger in "jaw jaw" as well as in "war war"--and that sometimes the former can make the latter more likely.

Max Boot is a senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign -Relations, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and a foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign.