The conference between President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in a picturesque 18th-century villa in Geneva has been labeled a “summit.” Whether that is an accurate depiction remains to be seen. Will the Biden-Putin talks rise to the significant level of summit?
To answer that question requires a look back in history to assess three such memorable meetings.
The Office of the Historian of the U.S. State Department described the post-World War II gathering of allied global leaders U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin as making “important decisions regarding the future progress of the war and the postwar world.” The magnitude of those decisions would be realized over the following decades. The entire global community had experienced the consequences of a world divided into a West that enjoyed relatively free societies and the Communist East that subjugated free will and imposed untold deaths and misery.
The Yalta Conference certainly qualified as a summit.
Another global power meeting between the United States and the Soviet Union, this time in May 1960, involved President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who sat down in Paris to look for ways the two nations could coexist peacefully.
According to History.com, the meeting was doomed from the start. Slightly more than two weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had shot down a U.S. U-2 spy plane and captured its pilot, Gary Francis Powers. The official U.S. story was that the aircraft was “merely a weather plane that had veered off course.” When the Soviets produced pieces of the U-2 and “Power’s admission he was working for the CIA,” the story came apart, and Eisenhower was forced to confess that the plane was “indeed” spying on Russia.
History.com described the opening scene:
“Khrushchev wasted no time in tearing into the United States, declaring that Eisenhower would not be welcome in Russia during his scheduled visit to the Soviet Union in June.”
The Soviet leader “demanded” that the U.S. president ban all future spy missions, but the former Supreme Allied Commander Europe replied that he would agree only to a “suspension.” Khrushchev left the meeting in a “huff.” According to U.S. officials in attendance, Eisenhower was furious at the public dressing-down of the United States. The meetings adjourned the next day. Eisenhower did not visit Moscow, and no further personal encounters occurred between Eisenhower and Khrushchev.
The Paris meeting met the summit-level test not because of its success but rather its drama and abject failure.
The meeting between Secretary-General of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev and President Ronald Reagan in November 1985 was a remarkable success. Despite Reagan’s stated sobriquet of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” the Cold War-era session in Geneva was mutually cordial. Again from History.com: Although the meeting “produced no earth-shattering agreements,” the discussion produced a lasting personal friendship between Reagan and Gorbachev that brought the two global adversaries closer together. This is made clear in a handwritten letter from the president to the Soviet leader at the meeting’s close:
“So, what I want to say finally is that we should make the most of the time before we meet again to find some specific and significant steps that would give meaning to our commitment to peace and arms reduction. Why not set a goal – privately, just between the two of us – to find a practical way to solve critical issues – the two I have mentioned [not militarizing local tensions and removing Soviet forces from Afghanistan] – by the time we meet in Washington?”
The development of an honest and warm relationship between President Reagan and Secretary-General Gorbachev laid the groundwork for the breakup of the Soviet Union on Dec. 24, 1991, rating their encounter in Geneva as a summit.
Other conferences have taken place over the years between Russia and the United States with various personalities and agendas. Yalta, Paris, and Geneva 1985 are examples of the extremes: good, bad, and far-reaching in impact on global powers.
Anticipating anything close to the 1985 summit from Biden and Putin may prove disappointing, and yet a disaster like Paris is unlikely. There is much antagonistic rhetoric on both sides to overcome. Perhaps in the coming months, when U.S. and Russian diplomatic teams look back on June 16, 2021, the Geneva talks as “unremarkable” will be the best assessment.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.
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