Meeting at the top

Published June 19, 2021
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

SUMMITS, as meetings between heads of state and government are called, are as old as mankind itself. The recent summits which President Joe Biden undertook hold lessons in summitry which has provoked a mass of literature of uneven quality. On his visit to the UK, he was treated to all the pageantry for which the British are famous. Of his ‘summit’ with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the less said the better.

The entire objective of Biden’s excursion was to repair the damage which Donald Trump had inflicted on America’s ties with Western Europe and with Nato. “I want all Europe to know that the United States is there.” He amplified “Nato is critically important to us” and that Article 5 is a “sacred obligation”.

This provision of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 embodies the pledge that a military attack on a member of the alliance will be regarded as an attack on each and all. This was not evident after 9/11. The allies rushed to declare their responsibility. President G.W. Bush decided to go it alone while asking for the allies to contribute their troops.

On June 16, Biden went to Geneva to meet Russia’s President Vladimir Putin but not before he had let loose a volley of epithets on Putin. He had referred to him as a “killer”.

It was Winston Churchill who first used the word ‘summit’ in 1953 soon after Stalin’s death. He proposed that “a conference on the highest level should take place between the leading powers without long delay”. He added that “if there is not at the summits of the nations the will to win the greatest prize ... doom-laden responsibility will fall upon those who now possess the power to decide”. After this speech the word became part of political vocabulary.

There must be the will to listen, to confer and to compromise.

However, Churchill’s own foreign office baulked at the idea. The US secretary of state was cool to it. Accordingly, only a foreign ministers’ conference took place that year. The only postwar Big Four Summit to meet was the Geneva Conference from July 18 to 23, 1955.

On the one side are those who regard summitry as a panacea for all international ills. On the other stand the critics who condemn it as worse than useless, as in fact positively dangerous.

There are examples of successful summits held not after some improvement in relations but while the countries were tottering on the brink. The Nehru-Liaquat meeting in 1950, for instance. What distinguished them was that, although the objective situation was bad, there was on both sides such an overwhelming desire to mend matters as to make the summit worthwhile. There must be at least the will to listen, to confer and to compromise. Without these, the best prepared summit will fail.

However, such is the complexity of most modern problems that even where the will to meet does exist, the summit would be futile if the diplomatic groundwork is not done well and in advance.

Lack of prior preparation is the principal ground of expert criticism of summits. George F. Kennan has explained the necessity for such preparation: “The multitude of ulterior problems that press upon a prime minister or a head of state is so great that no single subject, especially one not regarded as of primary importance, is apt to receive detailed and exhaustive attention. Nor can the senior statesmen stay with a problem for any great length of time. Their time is precious, other responsibilities take them away.”

There has, however, recently come into being a new variant of the old summit. It is a summit at which you just get to know and to understand without professedly negotiating. Winston Churchill himself wanted a conference which “should not be overhung by a ponderous or rigid agenda, or led into mazes and jungles of technical det­ails, zealously contested by hordes of experts and officials drawn up in vast, cumbrous array. … It should meet with a measure of informality and a still greater measure of privacy and seclusion”. There is little question that where there exists some misunderstanding as to each other’s intentions such talks could be useful. President Kennedy wanted to size up his man and warn him of the dangers of miscalculation at Vienna in 1961.

But such is the charm of the summit that these hazards are often lost sight of. The summit becomes an end in itself. The instrument of policy becomes its master.

The result is a complete absence of policy and a corruption of diplomacy. This then is the balance sheet. There are advantages and disadvantages. Whether a summit should be held or not is a purely practical question which should be answered without any sentimentality. Heads of state can resolve impasses better than officials. But preparation and a spirit of compromise are a must especially if problems are complex.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2021

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