Summit Sorcery--Is the Magic Gone?

The pomp of superpower summit meetings in television’s full color is so familiar to many Americans that it is sometimes hard to remember a world without it. Here comes the swept-wing airliner, rocking gently to a stop just before it swallows up the cameras. There come leaders to the top of the ramp, in floodlight or in daylight, aides holding umbrellas as needed. And here are the presidents, smiling broadly just before everybody except interpreters is invited out of their meeting room.

But the pomp is threatened by a change in the circumstance that has made past summit meetings between the United States and the Soviet Union occasions of such high drama. For more than 20 years, these two nations have had the nuclear power to blow each other to bits.

Nations hastened to align themselves with one or the other, East or West, and when earlier summits went sour, the power of the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers bound other countries close to them in a mutually advantageous paranoia.

Summits also seem to result in pleasant surprises that produce global turns for the better, but that has not always been the case.


The Cold War, for example, grew more icy after President Eisenhower and Secretary General Khrushchev, a year after their 1959 get-together at Camp David, canceled their Paris summit in the wake of the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane by the Soviets. The 1961 Vienna summit between President Kennedy and Khrushchev ended in a Soviet miscalculation of Kennedy’s backbone that led to the Berlin Wall.

But others, in particular the meetings of the mid-1980s between President Reagan and now-President Gorbachev, produced such stunning changes in superpower relations that the very reason for such summits is fading away.

The unintended consequence of any perceived diminution in the threat of a nuclear apocalypse is that allies are likely to think increasingly for, and of, themselves. Another factor is that great power status is likely to depend more on performance as a global manufacturer, investor and creditor than on military strength. Being second in nuclear power only to the U.S. and first in conventional power in Europe did nothing to lift the Soviet Union out of its Third-World economic status.

These are so far mere tendencies, not accomplished facts, but the signs seem clear. In two years, Europe plans to turn itself into an integrated producer and consumer with a gross national product second only to that of the United States. Japan is already a major power in economic terms; China wants to be.

What keeps superpower summits alive for now, and essential to the well-being of the world, is that the task of negotiating the supplies of nuclear missiles from several thousand down to a few hundred is barely under way. But it has begun. And summit meetings, like the one that begins today, will increasingly have more than weapons on the agenda and will, more and more, need larger conference tables as other great powers join in.