Impact Is Often Delayed : Summitry: Amid Hopes, a Danger of Distortion
“If the President would pardon the blunt expression,” the burly Soviet leader thundered at the youthful American chief executive, U.S. policy “stems from megalomania, from delusions of grandeur. The United States is so rich and powerful that it believes it has special rights and can afford not to recognize the rights of others.”
The scene was Vienna, in June, 1961. John F. Kennedy, then 44, barely four months in office and the youngest man ever to serve as President, had ventured into the ultimate bullring of personal diplomacy--a summit meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev. And things were not going well. According to “Secret--Eyes Only” notes kept by a U.S. assistant, Khrushchev tongue-lashed Kennedy on everything from Cuba to Berlin and topped it off with thinly veiled threats of military attack on Iran and Turkey.
Kennedy’s response was steely. “The President concluded the conversation by observing that it would be a cold winter,” according to the White House notes.
Cold indeed: The Kennedy-Khrushchev summit was a disaster that eventually took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust. At the time, however, it was hailed by some as a significant step toward peace. In the eyes of contemporaries, Khrushchev’s bullying was discounted as harmless bluster. Newsweek magazine’s account of the 1961 meeting began with the reassuring observation, “It ended, as it began, with two firm hands firmly clasped.”
In a televised report to the nation immediately after his return from Vienna, Kennedy said the meeting would prevent war by miscalculation, an ironic assessment in light of the next year’s Cuban missile crisis, when Khrushchev’s misjudgment of Kennedy pushed the world close to conflagration. “We realized that each nation has the power to inflict enormous damage upon the other . . . ,” Kennedy said, “and that care should thus be taken to prevent our conflicting interests from so directly confronting each other that war necessarily ensued.”
The Kennedy-Khrushchev encounter illustrates a central fact about the 11 summit meetings that have been arranged between leaders of the two nuclear superpowers since the end of World War II: With unsettling frequency, both the participants themselves and the watching world have come down from the summit with a seriously distorted, even dead-wrong assessment of what was accomplished--good or bad.
In a recent study of U.S. summit diplomacy, Charles H. Fairbanks Jr., a Johns Hopkins University professor and former State Department policy planner, concluded that “the dramatic impact of a summit creates a desperate need for success, which gives birth to a tremendous temptation to proclaim fictitious results.”
And while the understandable human yearning for signs of hope in the nuclear age has often led to over-optimistic assessments of summitry, the historical record shows there have also been times when significant accomplishments and positive turning points in U.S.-Soviet relations were overlooked.
Only with the long view of hindsight, the record suggests, can the pluses and minuses of a superpower summit be accurately summed up.
After 24 years of such hindsight, historians are now convinced that Khrushchev seriously underestimated Kennedy during their meeting in Vienna. The young President, seeking to present a face of candor and reasonableness, responded to Khrushchev’s complaints about U.S. actions around the world by conceding several times that Washington had made mistakes.
For instance, according to the anonymous note-taker, “The President then said that speaking frankly, U.S. policy in that (Southeast Asian) region had not always been wise.”
Sign of Weakness
In a private, man-to-man discussion between two American politicians, such a ploy can be disarming. Khrushchev, unfortunately, took it as a sign of weakness. Emboldened, the Soviet leader built the Berlin Wall and installed nuclear missiles on the U.S. doorstep. Kennedy dramatically forced Khrushchev to change that assessment in 1962, but only by facing down the Soviet leader in the Cuban missile crisis.
At the other end of the scale, little significance was ascribed to the June, 1967, meeting between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei A. Kosygin at Glassboro, N.J. What Johnson came away describing as “the Spirit of Glassboro” was discounted at the time as little more than political summer stock.
Today, however, some historians believe it was that meeting that turned the diplomatic attention of Washington and Moscow to arms control--the subject that has dominated all later summits down to the present day--and set the stage for the weapons pacts of the 1970s.
“Glassboro marked Johnson’s first move toward arms control,” Thane Gustafson, director of Soviet programs at Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said. "(Former President Richard M.) Nixon will say--and he does say--that only he with his anti-Communist credentials could go the whole distance and come up with an arms control agreement that could command bipartisan support. That very well may be, but the paperwork got started at Glassboro.”
The primary purpose of superpower summits, of course, is to reduce the possibility of war. Meetings that are perceived by contemporaries as having done that--and most of them are--are marked up as successes while ones that do not seem to ease tensions are considered failures.
State of Relations
Yet Gustafson argues that the true import of particular summits may have less to do with the way they are initially perceived than the cyclical state of U.S.-Soviet relations.
“A summit appears to have a catalytic effect, either accelerating an upturn or accelerating a downturn,” Gustafson said. ‘The classic upturn was ’72,” when Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev held the first of his three summit meetings with Nixon. “The ’79 meeting (between Brezhnev and President Jimmy Carter) in Vienna was a classic downturn of the slope. The clouds were gathering and the problems seemed intractable. The two presidents could sign the SALT II agreement and it didn’t make a bit of difference because the momentum was all the other way.”
Almost all of the U.S.-Soviet summits have had the effect of concentrating minds of the two governments on the underlying issues of nuclear-age war and peace, issues that tend to become submerged in the daily rush of less important, but more timely, issues.
Raymond Garthoff, author of a newly published book on U.S.-Soviet relations, says summits are worthwhile because “the mere fact of preparing for a summit, even though it has essentially a prearranged agenda, does sometimes push things to a decision . . . and does result in the President becoming better informed than he might be otherwise.”
Terms of Deadlines
And, adds Gerard C. Smith, chief arms control negotiator in the Nixon Administration, “Summits are useful in terms of deadlines and getting the Adrenalin running in the bureaucracy.”
The forthcoming Reagan-Gorbachev summit is unusual because both principals will be attending their first such meeting. Six American presidents have attended summit conferences, while on the Soviet side, the summits were dominated by Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
Gordon R. Weihmiller, in a forthcoming book from the Georgetown Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, concludes that the Soviet advantage in terms of summit experience is magnified “when one recalls that (the current Soviet president and former Foreign Minister Andrei A.) Gromyko participated in all (postwar) summits and that there has been a remarkable consistency in Soviet personnel on the SALT negotiations.”
“The cycle of presidential elections, the role of a free press, pressures of public expectations, among numerous other domestic considerations of great difference in the two countries, surely affect their leaders’ orientation, motivation and flexibility at the summit table,” Weihmiller says.
Postwar summit diplomacy began in 1955 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower met at Geneva with British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, French Premier Edgar Faure and a Soviet delegation nominally headed by Premier Nikolai A. Bulganin but actually controlled by Khrushchev, the Communist Party leader. It was followed by:
--September, 1959: Eisenhower and Khrushchev in Washington and at Camp David, Md.
--May, 1960: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and French President Charles de Gaulle in Paris. The meeting ended without a single formal session being held because Eisenhower refused Khrushchev’s demand for an apology for a U.S. U-2 spy plane flight over Soviet territory.
--June, 1961: Kennedy and Khrushchev at Vienna.
--June, 1967: Johnson and Kosygin at Glassboro.
--May, 1972: Nixon and Brezhnev in Moscow.
--June, 1973: Nixon and Brezhnev at Washington and Camp David, Md.
--June-July, 1974: Nixon and Brezhnev in Moscow.
--November, 1974: Gerald R. Ford and Brezhnev at Vladivostok.
--July-August, 1975: Ford and Brezhnev in Helsinki (where both men were attending the formal signing of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe).
--June, 1979: Carter and Brezhnev in Vienna.
At the time it was held, the 1955 Geneva summit was an unsurpassed spectacle. It was also an example of trouble masquerading as success.
Eisenhower later estimated that more than 1,200 people attended, including about 1,000 journalists--a staggering number in those days before global television. And the venerated former general took the opportunity to unveil his “open skies” plan for unlimited aerial reconnaissance intended to prevent surprise attacks. As U.S. officials knew they would, the Soviets rejected the plan--the idea was overtaken by spy satellite technology within a decade anyway--and the meeting produced no formal agreements.
Overlooked at the time was the fact that Eisenhower did not meet privately with Khrushchev, possibly because U.S. officials did not realize how important the rough-mannered Soviet leader had become in the Moscow hierarchy.
Despite the meeting’s lack of concrete accomplishments, the 1955 summit was hailed as an unparalleled success. The public seized on “the Spirit of Geneva” as the first flicker of hope for a reduction in Cold War hostility since the victorious wartime alliance broke into postwar rivalry.
But later analysis discovered a dark side to the spirit of Geneva.
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, former counselor of the State Department and a longtime expert on Soviet affairs, said the 1955 meeting “ushered in a little stability in Central Europe” by implicitly recognizing that the postwar division into Communist and non-Communist camps was not worth a war and could not be changed short of that. As a result, the Soviets, who had spent the first decade after the war consolidating their position in Europe, were freed to turn their attention to other regions.
‘New Soviet Dynamism’
“What was not recognized at the time is that 1955 marked a new Soviet dynamism in the Third World,” Sonnenfeldt said in an interview. “This led to most of the conflicts that we have had since.”
The 1955 Geneva meeting was the last of the full-scale “Big Four” conferences patterned after the wartime meetings of U.S., British and Soviet leaders at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta and Potsdam in 1945. There was one more try at four-power summit diplomacy, in 1960, when Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Macmillan and De Gaulle gathered in Paris.
The formal conference never began because two weeks before the scheduled start of the meeting, Soviet gunners brought down a U.S. U-2 spy plane and captured its pilot, Air Force Lt. Francis Gary Powers. At the scheduled opening session, Khrushchev demanded that Eisenhower apologize and promise never to send spy planes over Soviet territory again. Eisenhower refused. The meeting was recessed to give diplomats a chance to seek a compromise.
But two days later, Khrushchev held a press conference in which he loudly and sometimes obscenely denounced the “lackeys of imperialism,” ending any chance that the meeting might transact serious business. The Paris meeting was widely perceived as a fiasco at the time. It may well have been, but historians say it produced no lasting effects, either positive or negative.
The Kennedy-Khrushchev summit was the fourth following World War II and, like the sessions that preceded it, the Vienna meeting was primarily ideological. The leaders stated their conflicting views of most of the world’s trouble spots without even trying to negotiate agreement on solutions.
It was also the last U.S.-Soviet summit that did not focus--at least in part--on strategic arms limitation. By 1972, when Nixon met Brezhnev in Moscow, arms control had become the dominant theme of summit diplomacy. Brezhnev signed strategic weapons agreements with Nixon in 1972, Ford in 1974 and Carter in 1979.
Those arms pacts were, in the words of one former senior diplomat, largely “pre-cooked” before the summits opened, although Nixon and Brezhnev in 1972 and Ford and Brezhnev in 1974 made some compromises themselves that wrapped up clauses that lower-level diplomats had been unable to resolve.
Sonnenfeldt, who was a senior staff aide to both Nixon and Ford, said some matters were deliberately left open “so the top guys would have a feeling that they were making the decisions themselves.”
Former Nixon arms negotiator Smith agrees that Nixon and Brezhnev put the finishing touches on the SALT I pact. Unlike Sonnenfeldt, he does not think that was a good idea.
“Summits are not useful in terms of substantive negotiations,” Smith says. “When Nixon and Brezhnev started negotiating, it was obvious they didn’t know what they were talking about and they almost got us into very deep mischief. These problems don’t lend themselves to solutions by political leaders.”
In November, 1974, at Vladivostok, Ford and Brezhnev agreed on a framework for future arms limitation talks, making essentially political compromises to guide their negotiators. Most historians agree the idea was a good one but, in the year that was left of the Ford Administration, the experts were unable to complete all the details.
Abiding by Its Terms
When Carter took over in 1977, he insisted on starting the arms talks from scratch, delaying a final agreement on a SALT II pact until the Carter-Brezhnev summit in Vienna in July, 1979. By then, U.S.-Soviet relations were badly frayed and ratification of the pact was doubtful at best.
Carter withdrew the agreement from Senate consideration following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan five months later; it has never been ratified though both Moscow and Washington have promised to abide by its terms.
In addition to the SALT I agreement, Nixon and Brezhnev in 1972 signed a loosely worded “Basic Principles of Relations Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics,” in which they promised to avoid actions that might provoke armed conflict. It had no enforcement provisions but, as a nuclear-age code of conduct, it marked the start of U.S.-Soviet detente, a period of relaxed tensions that was to last, albeit with steadily diminished vigor, until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
It is now generally agreed that the value of detente was grossly inflated by a public anxious to be free of the shadow of nuclear war.
But Sonnenfeldt argues that it was opponents of detente--more than its supporters--who inflated expectations. He says the opponents denounced as a violation of detente every Soviet action that was contrary to U.S. interests.
“Whenever the Soviets acted like Soviets, the opponents said, ‘See, detente is a failure and you were seduced,’ ” Sonnenfeldt says.
Since the spirit of detente is now long-dead and there are apparently no arms agreements almost ready for the signing, the meeting between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev this week in Geneva will almost certainly be more philosophical and less tightly focused than any since Kennedy-Khrushchev.
As Brookings scholar Garthoff put it: “The present occasion is more comparable to the summit meetings in the ‘50s and early ‘60s (when no agreements were expected or signed) than it is to those in the ‘70s.”