The Heritage Foundation

Executive Memorandum #57 on Europe

June 18, 1984

June 18, 1984 | Executive Memorandum on Europe

Superpower Summitry and Its Perils

(Archived document, may contain errors)

6/18/84 57


The desire to see Ronald Reagan sit down for a chat with Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko is one of the mo st admirable American im- pulses. It reflects a folksy faith that policy can be affected by per- sonality and that U.S.-Soviet tensions are in part a misunderstanding which can be dissolved if the two superpower chieftains powwow and con- vince each other of their desire forpeace. Americans felt reassured, for example, when Franklin Roosevelt warmly spoke of "Uncle Joel' Stalin. And Americans sighed in satisfaction when Nikita Khrushchev in 1959 visited Disneyland and waded through the mud of an Iowa farm. It is no wonder that U.S. presidents feel almost constant pressure to head towards the summit. Ronald Reagan, however, should not be stam- peded up the summit trail. History teaches not only that summits are no sure thing for improving relations, but that they can increase-tensions and almost always serve Soviet interests much more than American. There have been thirteen U.S.-Soviet summits, starting with the 1943 meeting in Teheran of Roosevelt and Britain's Winston Churchill with the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin. 'Subsequent summits,convened: February 1945, at Yalta, with Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin; July 1945, at Potsdam, with Harry Truman, Britain's leaders and Stalin; July 1955, at Geneva, with.Dwight Eisenhower, British and French leaders and Sovie t Premier Nikolai Bulganin; September 1959, at Washington, with Eisenhower and Khrushchev; May 1960, at Paris, with Eisenhower, British and French leaders and Khrushchev; June 1961, at Vienna, with John Kennedy and Khrushchev; June 1967, at Glassboro (New J ersey), with Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin; May 1972, at Moscow, with Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev; June 1973, at Washington, with Nixon and-Brezhnev; June'1974, at Moscow, with Nixon and Brezhnev; November 1974, at V l adivostok, with Gerald Ford and Br6zhnev; June 1979, at Vienna, with James Carter and Brezhnev. The results of these meetings were spotty. The most successful was Geneva. It was carefully planned to produce an agreement for the occu- pying powers to withd raw from Austria. The resulting "Spirit of Geneva" became the Cold War's first thaw. Much less successful were Johnson's meeting with Kosygin, Nixon"s 1974 trip to Moscow and the Vladivostok


gathering; little was accomplished. Some summits have been di sasters. At Yalta, Roosevelt made concessions for which 109 million East Europeans are still paying, while Khrushchev's bullying of Kennedy at Vienna surely emboldened the Soviet leader to 'erect the Berlin Wall a few months later and to station Of'fensiv e nuclear missiles in Cuba the following year. That summitry is perilous has been widely appreciated. Dean Acheson, Truman's Secretary of State, wrote of his "deep dislike and distrust of the 'summit conference."' He warned that summits "too often [have].b e en a gamble, the experience nerve-racking and the results un- satisfactory." Kennedy's Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, wrote that "such experience as we have had with summit diplomacy does not encourage the view that it contributes to the advancement of Am e rican interests." And Henry Kissinger's memoirs caution that "summit meetings are risky business." Four decades of summitry teach important lessons: -1) 'Summits asyim@etrically affect the U.S.and the USSR. In the wide open American society, extensive med i a coverage of an approaching summit raises public expectations to towering heights which can plunge to painful disillusion if the expectations are not fulfilled. At the sum- mit, American press coverage places the president in a fishbowl. By contrast, Kre m lin control of Soviet media gives it rheostat-like manipu- lation of Soviet public expectations and knowledge of the summit. 2) American leaders are tempted irresistably to exploit a summit for domestic political purposes.. This prompts them to exaggerate the sum- mit's importance. Soviet leaders need to do so. 3) Having raised public expectations, American presidents dare not return from a summit emptyhanded. As a summit's conclusion approaches and success remains beyond reach, a president may be t em ted to make reckless concessions. At Moscow in 1972, for examplel, ixon was so determined to return home with a SALT I treaty that he negotiated hastily and sloppily, creating the loopholes which Moscow has been exploiting ever since. Writes Kissinger, "Any meeting with the Soviets at the Presidential or Secretary of State level that did not lead to a break- through was dismissed by the media as a failure." Soviet leaders, mean- while, payno penalty for leaving a summit emptyhanded; no Kremlin boss has e ver gotinto trouble for negotiating too toughly with the U.S. 14) Simply going to the summit fosters a mood in the U.S. which makes national security concerns seem less urgent, even though the summit does not slow Soviet military programs. These lessons c a nnot be ignored by those who call for a U.S.-Soviet summit. The President is right to be cautious. He is right to insist on careful planning, a detailed agenda and final drafts of those agree- ments which he will be expected to sign. only then, history te aches us, should he consent to ascend the summit.

Burton Yale Pines Vice President The Heritage Foundation

P repared with the assistance of Heritage intern Daniel Marcus.


About the Author

Related Issues: Europe