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Summit Conferences

Theodore A. Wilson

The practice of tribal heads, kings, emperors, and princes of the church meeting together has been the normal way of conducting diplomacy for most of recorded history. Identification of the interests of the state with the ruler's personal concerns dictated that rulers eschew the usual device of emissaries, and meet with their peers to deal with grievances, arrange dynastic marriages, proclaim wars, and enforce peace settlements. Chronicles are replete with examples, whether real or mythical, of personal diplomacy. The council of the Aegean leaders before the Trojan War, the confrontation of Moses and the pharaoh, Richard I's legendary encounter with Saladin in the Holy Land, and certainly the dramatic meeting of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV with Pope Gregory VII at Canossa in 1077 might all be termed "summit conferences."

The meeting of Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France on the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520) near Calais, France, however, was almost anachronistic. By the seventeenth century a system of diplomatic representatives was supplanting the personal diplomacy of secular and religious rulers. Thereafter, as permanent missions assumed responsibility for negotiations, the direct involvement of national leaders in diplomacy became quite unusual. For example, of the forty-two major international conferences that took place between 1776 and 1914 listed in Ernest Satow's A Guide to Diplomatic Practice (1957), only one, the Congress of Vienna, featured the presence of heads of state.

Before World War I, the American diplomatic style called for the president to delegate responsibility for negotiations to others: secretaries of state, ambassadors, and special agents. Of course, some chief executives, such as President James K. Polk during the Mexican War (18461848), did intervene decisively in foreign affairs, but their initiatives were implemented by special emissaries. Very early, a tradition was established that a president not travel beyond the borders of the United States during his tenure in office. Theodore Roosevelt threw over this custom by visiting Panama in 1906. Another tradition appears to have discouraged official visits to the United States by foreign heads of state and heads of government, for just thirty such visits occurred prior to 1918. Thus, historical precedent alone made the exercise of personal diplomacy by the president unlikely.

All this changed when President Woodrow Wilson decided to attend the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Since World War I every president except Warren G. Harding has traveled abroad, taking part either in formal conferences or in consultations with the leaders of other nations. The incidence of such conferences in the diplomacy of all nations has increased markedly. Certainly, since the beginning of World War II, the United States has led the way to the top-level conference table. Since 1940 American presidents have taken part in more than 200 international meetings, ranging from bilateral and informal conversations to highly organized multinational conclaves. One analysis claims that from 1953 to 2000, presidential visits abroad, ranging from a few hours to several days, total 314. President William Jefferson Clinton leads in personal diplomacy by a staggering margin, having spent 229 days abroad and visited seventy-four different countries (or entities) during his eight years in office.

In and of itself, the break with tradition, from minimal involvement by U.S. chief executives in the negotiation process to direct, repeated participation through personal diplomacy, was not unexpected. It paralleled the mushrooming American interest in world affairs and the increasing influence exerted by the United States in the international arena. What may be deemed surprising is the emergence of high-level personal diplomacy and its principal manifestation, the summit conference, as a major technique for the conduct of the nation's business abroad. "The summit conference," one observer wrote, "has become a vital part of the contemporary foreign relations system of the United States." Not only have postWorld War II presidents relied extensively on this diplomatic technique; they have made it a test of the success or failure of ambitious initiatives in foreign affairs. Why have American leaders found the summit conference so appealing? What purposes have they believed summitry can accomplish that cannot be achieved by means of conventional diplomatic channels? Is the summit conference an inevitable result of the technological revolution in communication and transportation? A critical question is whether summit conferences are intended to deal with matters of substance or of style. Phrased bluntly, is the object of summit diplomacy the foreign leaders with whom a president confers or the American people? Last, what have been the significant effects, if any, of summitry on the course of U.S. foreign policy? Have these latter-day "religio-political circuses" benefited or harmed the United States?


In order to treat at least some of these questions, it is necessary to identify the special characteristics of summit conferences and to ascertain which of the numerous international meetings American leaders have attended since 1950 were "summits" rather than "ordinary" high-level conferences. An impressive body of writing exists on this subject; but no precise, wholly satisfactory definition of "summit conferences" has been provided. The Oxford Companion to American History 's definition, which may be taken as typical, states: "Summit conferences, as the term has been used since World War II, applies to the meeting of heads of government of the leading powers in an effort to reach broad measures of agreement. The first such meeting took place (July 1955) at Geneva. Although similar meetings have been proposed since then, none has taken place, since a fixed agenda prepared by lower-level conferences seems to be a necessary prerequisite." Not only is this definition self-contradictory (referring to the existence of the practice since World War II and then asserting that a summit conference first took place in 1955), it is also unduly restrictive and outdated. The stipulation that a summit conference be preceded by lower-level meetings to fix an agenda (which presumes that a summit must have an agenda) is unwarranted. From historical example and widespread usage, one may argue that any meeting sufficiently well organized to be termed a "conference" may also be called a summit conference. Indeed, the concept has become so widespread that just about any international convocation that includes one or more heads of government is labeled a "summit" conference.

The Oxford explication does, however, include certain other criteria that are essential to the construction of a working definition: for an international conference to be a summit meeting, heads of government must take part, "leading powers" must be involved, and it should represent "an effort to reach broad measures of agreement" rather than be merely a ceremonial visit. While admittedly unsophisticated, such a definition accurately reflects the present state of understanding. Elmer Plischke, whose Summit Diplomacy: Personal Diplomacy of the President of the United States (1958) was the first comprehensive study of the subject, simply refers to "the practice of chiefs of state and heads of government meeting in bipartite or multipartite gatherings." Clearly of most significance is the element of personal presidential involvement.

Application of the above criteria reveals that U.S. presidents have taken part in some eighty summit conferences since 1919. Among them would rank Versailles (1919); Franklin D. Roosevelt's nine wartime meetings with Allied leaders; Potsdam (1945); Geneva (1955); Camp David (1959); Paris (1959, 1960); Vienna (1961); Glassboro (1967); President Richard M. Nixon's visits to the Soviet Union and China; the participation of President Gerald R. Ford in the Helsinki summit and his trips elsewhere; the Group of Seven (G-7, but effectively G-8 since 1991) economic summits held annually since 1975; President James E. Carter's 1977 visit to London, the Sadat-Carter and Begin-Carter discussions in Washington, the Camp David Summit (1978), Carter's March 1978 trip to Egypt and Israel, and his Vienna meeting with Leonid Brezhnev to sign the SALT II Agreement; the participation of President Ronald Reagan in the Cancun Summit on International Cooperation and Development (1981), his visits to Europe (1982) and China (1984), the Reagan-Gorbachev summits at Geneva (1985), Reykjavik (1986), Washington (1987), and Moscow (1988), and the New York "mini-summit" with Gorbachev in December 1988; President George H. W. Bush's numerous consultations in Washington and abroad with world leaders, including six meetings with Gorbachev; and the seemingly nonstop recourse of President Bill Clinton to personal diplomacy.

It may be argued that all of these meetings followed the script written by Henry VIII and Francis I in 1520. That meeting certainly featured personal diplomacy. It was arranged for the purpose of reaching "a meeting of minds" between the principals rather than for the resolution of specific differences. It transpired in an atmosphere of opulence, informality, and artificial camaraderie. Last, its achievements typically were minimal. For the most part, any benefits were psychological, lying in the clearer understanding of one another's motives and motivations gained by the participants. The prototypical summit conference emphasized the "images" of progress rather than the realities of problems left unresolved.


The decision of President Woodrow Wilson to participate personally in the Paris Peace Conference ushered in the modern era of summit conferences. For the first time an American president was asserting the right to be present at negotiations affecting his nation's and the world's future security and to deal directly with his foreign counterparts, the heads of the Allied Powers. That the meeting to settle peace terms would be conducted by the principal political leaders of the allied nations was a logical continuation of wartime diplomatic experience. In almost every nation, the Allied Powers and Central Powers alike, elected leaders had assumed personal control of foreign policy. The British prime minister, David Lloyd George, had established a private diplomatic operation, bypassing even his foreign secretary, Lord Balfour. Similarly ignoring established channels and his secretary of state, President Wilson chose to use his friend and adviser, Colonel Edward House, as a personal representative, often communicating with other governments through him alone.

For the Allies, suspicion and dislike of the professional diplomats largely explained the direct intervention of heads of government. As Keith Eubank wrote: "Leaders of the Allied nations blamed secret diplomacy for World War I. Professional diplomats had secretly constructed entangling alliances which many thought had caused the war. Allied politicians were convinced that in the future they must control diplomacy to ensure peace. The professionals could not be trusted." In 1916 and 1917, meetings of allied premiers, with their chief assistants, had taken place. This practice was continued under the Supreme War Council, which brought together elected officials (or their representatives) and military spokesmen. During the final months of the war, the Supreme War Council assumed direct control over allied operations and also set in motion arrangements for the meeting of victorious governments to decide the terms of peace. All the major allied leaders planned as a matter of course to attend at least some planning sessions for the peace conference. For example, when President Wilson arrived in Paris, he immediately replaced Colonel House as U.S. representative to the Supreme War Council. By the time this body convened on 12 January 1919, to hear a report from Marshal Ferdinand Foch, allied commander in chief, on Germany's implementation of the armistice, the heads of the principal allied nations were in attendance. Thus, there existed precedents and procedures to make Versailles a true summit conference. Only the "spirit" of summit diplomacy was lacking, and Wilson soon provided a surfeit of that commodity.

President Wilson had not journeyed to Europe to exchange chitchat with obscure diplomats. From the beginning, the Supreme War Council (renamed the Council of Ten), which included the heads of government or foreign ministers of France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the United States, dominated the proceedings. The great powers decided to meet separately "to find out their own minds before they entered into the process of the peace conference," thereby relegating the other delegates to a passive role. Conscious of his special status as a head of state and supremely confident about his powers of persuasion, Wilson willingly acceded to these arrangements. It appears that he was relying upon the enormous popular acclaim accorded him in Europe and the self-evident wisdom of the policies he advocated. He hoped to achieve an easy consensus within the "Big Five" and then to obtain quick ratification of his peace program by the full conference. It could then be offered to a jubilant world. President Wilson was counting on the powerful impact on American opinion should he return from Paris a modern Moses, carrying down from the summit the tablets of the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations Covenant that he and Europe's wise men had inscribed.

It did not work out as planned. The Versailles Conference lasted too long and grappled with too many specific, complicated issues for the tone of lofty detachment to be maintained. Although Wilson dealt personally with almost every problem brought before the conference, many proved too esoteric even for him, and he was forced to call upon the "experts" for advice. Even more important, Wilson simply did not possess the power to dictate terms to the other participants. His status as folk hero and senior statesman meant little to the shrewd, experienced leaders with whom he had to negotiate. These men had specific goals, and they forced President Wilson to compromise on such matters as reparations and the mandate system. Convinced that the League of Nations, if inaugurated, would soon correct the imperfections of the Treaty of Versailles, Wilson chose to sacrifice other points to ensure that the League Covenant got through intact.

His was to prove a meaningless victory, for the United States eventually rejected membership in the League of Nations. There were to be various causes of the rejection of Wilson's dream. Certainly, though, President Wilson's presentation of the Versailles Conference as heralding the approach of the millennium was pivotal. Having exaggerated the benefits to be gained from this convocation of global leaders, whom he described as the forces of righteousness, Wilson was vulnerable to attack from all sides. The Versailles Conference must be termed the first modern summit conference. It demonstrated many characteristics that later practitioners were to emulate and improve. But Wilson's plunge into personal diplomacy also served as a warning, for he had failed to orchestrate the episode so as to ensure favorable public reaction. One explanation for this failure was his foolish attempt to use a summit conference to deal with substantive issues. His successors would not repeat that particular error.


Perhaps because of the contradictory results of Versailles, national leaders resisted the temptation to participate directly in the important diplomatic conferences of the interwar years. When they did attend, their role was formal and ceremonial. It required the emergence of personalities who recognized the propaganda benefits to be derived from dramatic confrontations with their political opposite numbers to revivify the practice. Adolf Hitler was one such personality. It is now the accepted wisdom to characterize Munich, the infamous summit meeting of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain with the posturing, saber-rattling Hitler in April 1938, as a great blunder, the more tragic because Western diplomats should have recognized such efforts were futile and thus unnecessary. This ignores the climate that prevailed and the conviction (which Hitler, a dedicated advocate of personal diplomacy, cleverly fostered) that only direct discussions between political leaders could break through the paper barriers erected by professional diplomats. Hitler perceived that the summit conference preeminently offered an opportunity for publicity, the reiteration in dramatic circumstances of one's position, rather than serious negotiation. He was undoubtedly a master of the technique termed "spin doctoring" by a later generation.


It is not surprising that Franklin D. Roosevelt, another political chief who was prone to personally engineered diplomatic fireworks, would find the summit conference a congenial tool. During his first term, Roosevelt concentrated on domestic problems. On the rare occasions he did involve himself in foreign affairs, his penchant for personal diplomacy, the dispatch of presidential agents, direct appeals to other heads of government, and proposals for top-level conferences offered a clear indication of his future course of action. After 1937, when Roosevelt assumed a more active role in foreign affairs, he based U.S. diplomacy largely on these techniques. Thoroughly distrusting the "striped-pants boys" in the Department of State and always on the lookout for opportunities to present issues to the American people in simple, dramatic terms, President Roosevelt loosed a torrent of midnight messages to European leaders and calls for general peace conferences. The purposes he assigned to these activities were less clearly formed, and in some ways more ambitious, than the cold assessment of potential results that underlay Hitler's fondness for summit conferences. While highly valuing the propaganda benefits, Roosevelt apparently also believed that leaderto-leader exchanges could bring about a personal rapport not possible via the ritualistic communications that typified traditional diplomacy. He also appears to have believed that mutual sympathy could lead to important breakthroughs. In retrospect, the emergence of the summit conference as a dominant instrument in the diplomacy of World War II appears to have been inevitable, given the leading role of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Certainly, as compared with past eras, World War II witnessed a marked increase in meetings between national leaders. The assembling of presidents, premiers, and generalissimos became normal, even expected, events. On the American side, ten such summit conferences took place: the Atlantic Conference between President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in August 1941; the first Washington Conference (Roosevelt and Churchill) in December 1941January 1942; Casablanca (Roosevelt and Churchill) in January 1943; the second Washington Conference (Roosevelt and Churchill) in May 1943; the first Quebec Conference (Roosevelt and Churchill) in August 1943; Cairo (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek) in November 1943; Tehran (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Premier Joseph Stalin) in NovemberDecember 1943; the second Quebec Conference (Roosevelt and Churchill) in September 1944; Yalta (Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin) in February 1945; and Potsdam (President Harry S. Truman, Churchill [replaced by Clement Attlee], and Stalin) in July 1945. Although called for various reasons, these meetings shared common characteristics and together they made the concept of summit conferences, if not the term itself, familiar to anyone with the remotest awareness of foreign affairs.

The first of these conferences, the dramatic sea meeting off Argentia, Newfoundland, of Roosevelt and Churchill in August 1941, coming as it did before formal U.S. entry into World War II, was in many ways the most novel. The Atlantic Conference established the style and much of the agenda for subsequent wartime meetings. It was secret, occurred in unique circumstances, andreflecting the purposes of summits to comedealt more with personal relationships than substantive issues. The conference confirmed the program of U.S. military aid to Great Britain; produced a short-lived agreement on policy toward Japan; sanctioned a statement of high purpose, the Atlantic Charter; and, most important, brought together two members of the triumvirate that was to lead the Allies.

Roosevelt and Churchill had been corresponding on a regular basis since September 1939, when the president congratulated the British politician on his reappointment as first lord of the Admiralty and had invited him to "keep in touch personally with anything you want to know about." Churchill responded with alacrity, and thus began a momentous correspondence. Soon, however, the two men were expressing eager interest in a personal meeting, moved largely by curiosity and anxiety. Both leaders possessed tremendous confidence in their charm and persuasive powers, and wished to test them against a worthy opponent. This first confrontation, though "devoutly wished and gladly consummated," produced great concern on both sides. Roosevelt's confidant, Harry Hopkins, once predicted: "Bringing together President Roosevelt and the Prime Minister would cause the biggest explosion ever seen." He was mistaken. Roosevelt and Churchill reached an amicable understanding at the conference. Deeply satisfied, Churchill informed the British war cabinet, "I am sure I have established warm and deep personal relations with our great friend." Roosevelt later told his wife that this personal encounter "had broken the ice," and he had been shown that Churchill was a man with whom he could work. Despite Churchill's boasts, however, political cooperation did not lead to true friendship.

Precisely what the Atlantic Conference achieved, other than the calming of anxious egos and the satisfaction of curiosity, is difficult to say. Roosevelt let pass the opportunity afforded by the postconference publicity to take bold action regarding American entry into the war. Looking back at this first summit, it appears that Roosevelt perceived the meeting as a way to avoid decisions. There was only the most rudimentary agenda, the president intentionally excluded Secretary of State Cordell Hull and other diplomatic officials, and the experts who did accompany him (mostly military figures) were given almost no time to prepare. As usual, the British were thoroughly briefed, and they took the lead in organizing the discussions. However, the environment in which the meeting occurred and Roosevelt's casual, often flighty approach to the weighty issues they raised proved a source of constant frustration to the British and to his own subordinates. The fact that there exists no official text of the Atlantic Charter, the conference's one clear achievement, is testimony to its chaotic and cursory nature.

The hopes and assumptions that Roosevelt assigned to this type of diplomatic initiative greatly influenced the summit conferences that followed at intervals during the war. The "conference" volumes in the Department of State's documentry series Foreign Relations of the United States reveal that subsequent meetings were vastly better organized than Roosevelt's meetings with Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland. But these documents also demonstrate that the procedures changed very little. Claiming that his meetings with Churchill (and the tripartite meeting at Tehran) dealt solely with military matters, President Roosevelt continued to exclude the professional diplomats. On several occasions he specifically forbade any member of his staff to take minutes of the talks with other political leaders. Only when the question of the final conference communiqué, the public announcement of the questions discussed and decisions taken, arose did the president participate fully in the discussion and ask for his advisers' recommendations.

It was not until Tehran, when issues affecting postwar problems were dealt with, that Roosevelt permitted thoroughgoing preparation, a more formal agenda, and the participation by subordinates in carefully organized discussions with their opposite numbers. Tehran perhaps was the only true "conference" out of all the wartime summit meetings. Much more than the meeting at Yaltaat which Roosevelt's participation, betraying ill health and mental exhaustionwas sporadic and confused, the Roosevelt-Churchill-Stalin conference at Tehran produced important decisions affecting the conduct of the war and the shape of the postwar world.

It is important to emphasize that the summit conferences of World War II treated vital issues: problems of grand strategy and logistics (the second front question being most important), policy regarding the vanquished enemies, creation of a viable international organization, and the political and economic conditions of the peace. Whether these issues could have been more successfully handled by means of traditional diplomacy is moot. Despite the baneful influences to which the participants in these meetings were subjectedinterminable dinners and toasts, late night tête-à-têtes, the pressure to render crucial decisions on the basis of comradely pleadings and unsubstantiated informationone may argue that Roosevelt never reversed established policies of the United States while caught up in the "unreal atmosphere" of a summit conference. The decisions regarding the second front, German occupation zones, and the supposed "sellout" to Stalin at Yalta may have had little to do with summitry; and the most famous indictment of Roosevelt's participation in summit conferences, the offhand announcement of the "unconditional surrender" policy at Casablanca, can be presented, as Warren Kimball and others have argued, as a logical, carefully prepared extension of accepted policy. In addition, the practice of traditional diplomacy continued and, indeed, greatly increased during the war. Summit diplomacy did not replace, but rather superimposed itself on, the normal diplomatic process, and the difficulties experienced by American diplomats in settling relatively minor disputes do not suggest that oldstyle laborious negotiation would have resolved the major issues dividing the wartime allies.

To the related questionwhether the reliance on summit conferences best served the interests of the American peoplea more definite answer is possible. Here the practice was clearly harmful. It gave rise to erroneous assumptions on the part of American leaders and public about the nature of wartime diplomacy and about the likelihood of harmonious adjustment of all international conflicts. A summit conference seems always to generate "an aura of unreality," because it brings together persons who perhaps hold diametrically opposed viewpoints, and compels them to smile and genuflect to each other and to the ideal of mutual understanding and goodwill. An individual such as Franklin Roosevelt, predisposed toward personal initiatives and the belief that, for example, "Uncle Joe" Stalin was basically a tough ward politician who happened to speak Russian, risked losing his sense of perspective. Roosevelt confused the appearance of progress fostered by the congeniality present at these meetings with the reality of the conflict between American, Soviet, and British goals. A rosy assessment of colleagues' good intentions manifestly colored Roosevelt's evaluation of their subsequent actions as set forth in the cables and memoranda that flooded into the White House map room. Further, the optimistic readings about the summit conferences offered by President Roosevelt stimulated popular euphoria about the era of universal peace that surely would ensue because of these highly publicized communions of world leaders.


The death of President Roosevelt in April 1945 marked the beginning of a ten-year hiatus in American involvement with summit conferences. Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, did take part in the Potsdam Conference with his Russian and British counterparts; he hosted Clement Attlee and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King in November 1945 for talks about sharing nuclear secrets; and he reluctantly welcomed Attlee again in December 1950, when the British prime minister insisted on personal discussions regarding a rumored American decision to use atomic weapons in Korea. But it was clear that Truman did not share his flamboyant predecessor's fondness for dramatic initiatives (such as summit conferences) in foreign affairs. Much more a team player, Truman preferred to find men whom he respected and trusted, then authorize them to carry on the business of diplomacy. President Truman's one major summit conference, Potsdam (which had been scheduled prior to his accession), was enlightening. He enjoyed meeting Stalin and Churchill on equal terms, and he gained a measure of confidence from the experience; but the methodical, straightforward Missourian was repelled by the frequent deviations from the agenda and the lapses of his fellow leaders into propaganda speeches. Truman's distaste for personal diplomacy and the deepening rift in Soviet-American relations temporarily banished the summit conference from the American diplomatic repertoire. By 1947 even the regular meetings of diplomatic chiefs, the Council of Foreign Ministers, had degenerated into self-serving rhetorical exercises. Thereafter, the Cold War inhibited communication of any kind between East and West. Only once, during the 1948 presidential election, did Truman seriously entertain the possibility of a personal meeting with Stalin.


It remained for a new president, one possessing a gregarious personality and enormous self-confidence, to break open the frozen channels of East-West communication and to restore the summit conference to preeminence. The epoch that began with the meeting of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet leaders at Geneva in July 1955 (the first "summit conference" so labeled) witnessed an astonishing return of popularity of the summit conference. It also produced significant changes in the functions of this diplomatic instrument. As Adam Ulam observed: "Negotiations as such were perhaps less important than the ability to assess your protagonists needs, fears, and goals." Thus, the dimension of personal understanding remained central. But in contrast with the wartime meetings, Geneva and a long list of successor conferences openly disavowed matters of substance in favor of the goodwill and rapport to be gained (or proclaimed). For example, the meeting in Panama in July 1956 of leaders from nineteen nations under the auspices of the Organization of American States was portrayed as a "hemispheric summit" to inaugurate a new era of cooperation. President Eisenhower attended but, aside from posed photographs, little was accomplished. From the American perspective, the effects of summitry on public opinion at home became more important than the chance for diplomatic breakthroughs. As noted, publicity always had been important. Now, however, the determination of American leaders to avoid any impression of weakness in dealings with the communists and, as well, to defuse popular anxieties produced modifications not just of emphasis but also of basic purpose. As Joan Hoff notes, when U.S. and Soviet leaders met in person, "it gave people a sense of reassurance that, even though there was the possibility of a terrible nuclear confrontation, they were meeting and war was not going to happen."

The agreement to convene a summit conference in 1955 was especially noteworthy because of the previously intransigent attitude of President Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, toward the possibility of improved relations with the Soviet Union. It was forced upon them mainly by sentiment in Europe (where the Austrian peace treaty had finally been negotiated and the Warsaw Pact had been signed) and at home that, in Stephen Ambrose's cogent phrase, "some ground rules for the Cold War, of spirit if not of substance, were obviously needed." Worrying crises, such as the flare-up over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu off the China coast, demonstrated that the public would not support a longterm policy based on brinkmanship. Eisenhower himself was dedicated to peace, and he had been impressed by Churchill's argument for a summit. "It was only elementary prudence," the British statesman had written in the hopes of reviving the wartime habit of meetings between the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain, "for the West to learn at firsthand what sort of men were now in charge in the Kremlin, and to let these new men gauge the quality and temper of Western leadership." Secretary of State Dulles at first opposed such a meeting. He argued that the Russians were eager for a conference to dramatize the Soviet Union's moral and social equality with the West and to enhance the legitimacy of Stalin's successors. Finally, Dulles bowed to the president's wishes, muttering that if the summit served "as an object lesson for deluded optimists," it would be worthwhile.

The meeting of Eisenhower, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, and the new leaders of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin, opened in Geneva on 18 July 1955. Each side brought a huge staff and a staggering amount of background data (the American delegation had prepared 20 "basic documents" and 150 "secondary papers"), and an elaborate agenda was agreed upon. The volume of documentation ensured that the conference would bog down in details, and this soon happened. The meeting's significance derived from the reopening of communication it symbolized. Perhaps, given the rigid stance of Soviet and American policy and the comparable frigidity of public attitudes, some such dramatic gesture was necessary. At any rate, it worked. Smiling genially, President Eisenhower posed for photographs with the beaming Bulganin and Khrushchev. Such incidents and the ingenuous statements by both sides about a possible future reduction of tensions sparked a wave of popular exhilaration. The conference had transpired in a blaze of publicity (some 1,500 reporters and such public figures as the evangelist Billy Graham were present), and almost everyone acclaimed the "spirit of Geneva" as inaugurating a new era. The "spirit of Geneva" did not end the Cold War and did not resolve any of the grave problems faced by the Soviet Union and the West. It did, however, provide a clear impression that neither side wanted a thermonuclear holocaust and recognition that a military stalemate existed.

As the Atlantic Conference had for the wartime summits, so the Geneva meeting of 1955 served as a model for the following period of conferences between national leaders. Indeed, the obvious psychological and political benefits of such affairs (Eisenhower's popularity index reached 79 percent shortly after Geneva) proved irresistible. Even the aborted Paris summit of 1960, at which Premier Khrushchev forced Eisenhower to admit publicly that he had authorized U-2 spy flights over Soviet territory, did not greatly diminish the luster of summitry.


Anxious to prove his maturity to Khrushchev and the American people, President John F. Kennedy met the Russian leader at Vienna in 1961. Kennedy's apparent conviction that private discussions, avoiding bombastic public rhetoric, with someone such as Khrushchev would result in rational discourse foundered on the Soviet leader's desire to intimidate the young American president. Although Vienna proved a most unhappy experience, Kennedy's personal approach to diplomacy undoubtedly would have led to other such adventures had he lived. It is unlikely, however, that any repetition of the Vienna debacle would have occurred. With one notable exception, summit conferences from 1961 to the present have been carefully scripted.

President Lyndon Johnson was inclined toward face-to-face decision making. However, after a proposal in early 1965 for a U.S.Soviet summit became enmeshed in Moscow's criticism of the U.S. bombing campaign against North Vietnam, Johnson, wary of possible political repercussions and unwilling to permit the Soviets a forum for attacking U.S. involvement in Vietnam, contented himself with one perfunctory meeting with the Russians, the so-called Glassboro Summit in New Jersey (1967). Even so, it appeared that some form of personal contact between national leaders had become an essential duty of office. If that was so, Richard Nixon elevated this ritual to something approaching high art.


All the elements of the modern-day summit conference were present in Nixon's personal diplomacy: the secret preparations; the dramatic announcement of the intended journey to Peking, Moscow, and Guam; the elaborate ceremonies and effusions of mutual regard; and the vague final communiqué. Whether Nixon's assorted trips abroad were "true" summit conferences or merely formal state visits, one leader journeying to another country to exclaim over scenic wonders, consume regional delicacies, acquire souvenirs, and proclaim admiration for the host nation's achievements, is open to question. The significant initiatives pursued by Nixon and his national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger to readjust U.S. foreign policy to the political and economic implications of a multipolar world owed little to Nixon's engagement with summitry. It may be that Nixon desired to use these affairs to achieve real breakthroughs. He certainly prepared for "conferences" rather than for ceremonial visits to the Great Wall of China and the Bolshoi Ballet. If that was the case, Nixon was disappointed, for his interventions in diplomacy followed the pattern established two decades earlier, and their effects were decidedly greater at home than abroad. Nixon, of course, emphasized the domestic political effects of a summit conference. Talking with Kissinger about his 1972 summit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Nixon urged that no "final agreements be entered into" prior to his arrival in Moscow, for otherwise his critics "will try to make it appear that all of this could have been achieved without any summitry whatever."

Perhaps these frantic efforts proved unsuccessful because the usefulness of summit conferences now had been exhausted. Keith Eubank wrote: "Summit conferences ought not to be used as an antibiotic, believing that frequent doses will cure the patient. The summit conference can never be a quick cheap cure for international ills whose treatment requires time, labor, and thought." At some point, publicity stunts and presidential globe-trotting must give way to deliberate, serious analysis and negotiation. But diverting the public's attention may have been the point. Was it accidental that President Nixon visited ten countries and spent twenty-two days abroad during the eight months prior to his resignation on 9 August 1974?


The summit conference as an instrument of U.S. diplomacy is marvelously exemplified by the Helsinki Conference in July 1975. There, President Gerald Ford and the leaders of some thirty other nations conferred in dignified surroundings and then signed a document that confirmed the political and territorial division of Europe that had occurred thirty years before. Convocation of a summit conference for such a blatantly propagandistic and shallow purpose appears to suggest, as Henry Kissinger wrote after the collapse of the Paris summit in 1960, that this technique, long put forward "as the magic solvent of all tensions," stood revealed as a "parody" of diplomacy. Nevertheless, summit conferences continued in favor, for they do offer political and propaganda benefits to participants. In November 1974, President Ford met with Leonid Brezhnev in Vladivostok to affirm their commitment to arms control, but SALT II was never implemented fully as a treaty. Ford's visit to China in the fall of 1975 was billed a summit conference in order to improve his "image" as a statesman, thus enhancing his chances of reelection. Even though nothing of substance resulted from the trip, the president and his advisers considered the China summit a great success. President Jimmy Carter's triumphal tour of England in the spring of 1977, capped by a friendly but diplomatically insignificant meeting with European leaders in London, was clearly in the same tradition.

The Ford and Carter presidencies did witness the emergence of two new variants of the summit conference: the "economic summit" and the "brokered summit." The economic summit is perhaps best exemplified by the inauguration of an annual meeting of the heads of the seven most powerful economic states (the G-7). These meetings have many of the hallmarks and various defects of bilateral summits, though they have proved useful in highlighting such global problems as drugs, the information society, and energy. Such regional summits as the annual meeting of European Union heads and the so-called "Summit of the Americas" mirror this approach.

The brokered summit may appropriately be considered as a manifestation since the mid-1970s of the uniquely powerful role of the United States in international affairs. Seeking a way out of the quagmire in which Israel and its Middle East neighbors had been trapped for thirty years, a bog that threatened to drag in major powers and cause a global conflict, President Jimmy Carter decided to offer his good offices as a broker-mediator-matchmaker. Following the remarkable visit of the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, to Jerusalem in November 1977, Carter invited Sadat and the Israeli prime minister, Menachim Begin, to Washington for separate discussions about finding a way out of the quagmire. Next, the president arranged a joint meeting with the Egyptian and Israeli leaders at the presidential retreat, Camp David, Maryland. Originally planned as a three-day "meet-and-greet," this brokered summit went on for thirteen days (517 September 1978). By shuttling between cabins, soothing wounded feelings, and pushing the two adversaries to keep talking, Carter brokered the Camp David Accords, a framework for peace that, while never completely implemented, remains the basic document in the ongoing process to find a fair and equitable peace in the Middle East.


President Ronald Reagan brokered no peace settlements, and his first term saw a historic hiatus in the modern-day parade of summit conferences. Determined to rebuild America's power and prestige, Reagan and his advisers initially were hostile toward any dealings with that "evil empire," the Soviet Union. During his second term, however, there occurred a notable reversal of policies and attitudes. After Mikhail Gorbachev's accession to power in March 1985, Reagan met more frequently with his Russian counterpart than had any of his predecessors. Reagan and Gorbachev arranged a "meet-and-greet" in Geneva in November 1985; took part in a summit at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986; were reunited in Washington in December 1987 to sign the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; embraced in front of Lenin's Tomb at the Moscow Summit in June 1988; and met a final time in New York in December 1988.

The Reykjavik Summit was notable for its departures from the scripted agenda. President Reagan, eager for an attention-getting foreign policy feat prior to midterm congressional elections, agreed to a summit meeting without the usual lengthy preparations. The American delegation was stunned when Gorbachev proposed a 50 percent cut in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and their eventual elimination in return for U.S. abandonment of its missile shield, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Apparently convinced he was in a high-stakes poker game, Reagan offered to eliminate all American (and British and French) ICBMs within ten years if the Russians accepted deployment of SDI. This proposal confused Gorbachev, Reagan's aides, and, quite likely, the president himself. The Reykjavik summit broke up in disarray. Thereafter, summits have hewed closely to prearranged scripts.

The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union brought neither the end of history nor the abolition of the summit conference as a favored tool in the American diplomatic and political arsenal. President George Bush met on six occasions with Gorbachev prior to the latter's transfer of power to Boris Yeltsin in December 1991, and he made numerous trips abroad.


President Bill Clinton proved to be the most enthusiastic exponent of personal diplomacy of the modern era. He engaged in brokered summitry and also took part in conferences with Yeltsin (with whom he established warm relations), with the leaders of the European Union, and with Premier Zhu Rongji of the People's Republic of China. As well, between the spring of 1993 and the fall of 2000, Clinton made 133 visits to other nations, more than his predecessors Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon combined. Many of these trips were for political and psychological purposes, though Clinton also conducted presidential business. The itineraries and agendas of these visits were as carefully planned as were the summits Clinton attended. Both required enormous entourages. It has been estimated that more than 1,300 federal officials accompanied Clinton on his six-nation trip to Africa in 1998.

The technique of using the power and prestige of the president to bring adversaries to the bargaining table was used again by Clinton. Following a lengthy period of shuttle diplomacy by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Clinton brought Israel's prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, and the chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasir Arafat, to proclaim in a remarkable ceremony on the south lawn of the White House their commitment to mutual recognition, Palestinian self-rule, and a comprehensive peace settlement. Although Clinton did not personally oversee the tortuous negotiations that led to the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995, the commitment of his prestige and the awesome power of the United States made Dayton yet another brokered summit. It may be that Clinton's greatly ballyhooed trips to Irelandboth Northern Ireland and the Republicin December 1995 and September 1998, respectively, were intended to produce yet another brokered summit and public relations triumph. Unfortunately, Ireland's troubles were not so easily banished.

Although George W. Bush came into office as the least-traveled and perhaps least internationally minded of recent presidents, and waited some six months before taking part in his first summit (with the European Union leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2001), Bush appeared to be prepared to conduct personal diplomacy much as did his predecessors.


While the principal aims of the summit conference has changed little from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, the environment in which summitry occurs has changed since the end of the Cold War. At present and for the foreseeable future, the "typical" summit conference, a bilateral meeting of national leaders, has been replaced by multilateral summits, reflecting the diverse circumstances and problems of an increasingly multipolar and interdependent world system.


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Neustadt, Richard E. Presidential Power. New York, 1990.

Nicolson, Harold. Peacemaking, 1919. New York, 1965.

O'Connor, Raymond. Surrender. New York, 1973.

Parmet, Herbert S. Eisenhower and the American Crusades. New York, 1972.

Plischke, Elmer. "Recent State Visits to the United StatesA Technique of Summit Diplomacy." World Affairs Quarterly 29 (1958).

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Walton, Richard J. Cold War and Counterrevolution: The Foreign Policy of John F. Kennedy. New York, 1972.

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See also Ambassadors, Executive Agents, and Special Representatives; The Munich Analogy; Peacemaking; Presidential Advisers; Presidential Power; Public Opinion; Treaties.

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SUMMIT CONFERENCES, U.S. AND RUSSIAN, the occasions for heads of state or government to meet directly in what is often termed "personal diplomacy." While summits are often depicted as the opportunity for top leaders to reach breakthroughs on difficult issues their subordinates have been unable to resolve through negotiation, more often agreements signed at summit meetings are the culmination of traditional diplomatic work. Summits offer participants a chance to evaluate their counterparts in person, and allow leaders to impress domestic and international audiences with their peacemaking ability or diplomatic prowess, although the expectations they raise for dramatic progress can easily be disappointed.

Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has met with the Soviet or Russian leadership. Although each summit meeting was marked by circumstances specific to the historical moment, one can speak roughly of four phases: wartime meetings of the Allied leaders to plan strategy during World War II; a continued multilateral approach to dealing with crucial international issues in the Dwight D. Eisenhower years; a shift to bilateral discussions of nuclear arms limitation in the 1960s through the 1980s; and the attempt to forge a new relationship in the post–Cold War era.

Allied Conferences in World War II

The first wartime summit took place from 28 November to 1 December 1943, when President Roosevelt met with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at Tehran. Stalin pressed the Anglo-Americans to begin the promised cross-channel attack on German-held Europe, and promised to enter the war against Japan once Germany was defeated. Roosevelt proposed the creation of a postwar international organization to keep the peace, dominated by the "Four Policemen" (including China).

From 4 to 11 February 1945, the three met again at the Russian Black Sea resort of Yalta. Stalin consented to a four-power occupation of Germany (including a French force) and reaffirmed his promise to enter the war against Japan. But the central issue was the postwar fate of Eastern Europe, especially Poland. Stalin soon violated the Yalta agreement to assure representative government in Poland, made without provision for enforcement. This led Roosevelt's detractors to charge him with "betrayal" and to link the name of Yalta, like that of Munich, to appeasement, although the Yalta accords reflected the reality of the positions Allied armies had reached on the ground.

After Roosevelt's death and Germany's surrender, President Harry S. Truman traveled to Potsdam to meet Stalin and Churchill (replaced during the conference by Clement Attlee after his victory in British elections) from 17 July to 2 August 1945. They carved Germany into four occupation zones and settled on a policy of modest reparations and the rebuilding of Germany's basic infrastructure, rather than seeking the country's deindustrialization or dismemberment.

The sharpening of the Cold War after World War II brought a ten-year halt to U.S.-Soviet summit meetings. Summits were discredited in the minds of critics who believed that an ailing Roosevelt had been manipulated by a crafty Stalin at Yalta, and that there was nothing to be gained by personal diplomacy with untrustworthy rivals.

Summits on International Issues

The freeze began to thaw from 18 to 23 July 1955, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower met Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Communist Party chief Nikita Khrushchev, along with Prime Minister Anthony Eden of Britain and French Prime Minister Edgar Faure at Geneva in the first East-West summit of the Cold War. Neither Eisenhower's proposal for an "open skies" inspection plan permitting Americans and Soviets to conduct aerial reconnaissance over one another's territory, nor the Soviet proposal for mutual withdrawal of forces from Europe, made any headway. However, after a decade of no meetings, many welcomed the lessening of international tension associated with the "spirit of Geneva." This was followed by the "spirit of Camp David," when Khrushchev visited Eisenhower at the presidential retreat in Maryland from 25 to 27 September 1959 and retracted his ultimatum demanding a final settlement of the status of Berlin.

The thaw proved short-lived. Two weeks before a planned summit in Paris on 16 to 17 May 1960, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down deep inside Soviet airspace. Khrushchev used the opening of the summit to denounce American aggression and then walked out. When Khrushchev met the new President John F. Kennedy in Vienna on 3 and 4 June 1961, the two leaders eyed each other grimly. They agreed to avoid superpower confrontation over the civil war in Laos, but made no progress toward a proposed ban on nuclear weapons testing, and clashed over the fate of Berlin.

The outbreak of the Six-Day War in the Middle East prompted an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin planned to attend. Kosygin and President Lyndon B. Johnson met halfway between New York and Washington at Glassboro, New Jersey, from 23 to 25 June 1967. The Soviet premier called for American withdrawal from Vietnam and Israeli withdrawal from Egypt, and Johnson focused on nuclear issues. However, Kosygin had been given little power to negotiate by the Politburo, and no agreements were signed.

Détente and Nuclear Arms Talks

President Richard M. Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger sought to use negotiations with the Soviet Union to arrange an acceptable exit from the Vietnam War in exchange for improved relations. After Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972, Soviet leaders invited him to Moscow, where talks held from 22 to 30 May 1972, resulted in the signing of two agreements marking the beginning of "détente": a treaty limiting each country to the construction of two Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems, and an agreement limiting long-range land-based and submarine-based ballistic missiles, later known as the SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) treaty.

Communist Party Secretary Leonid Brezhnev visited the U.S. from 18 to 25 June 1973, where he and Nixon signed a number of minor agreements regarding agriculture, transportation, and trade. A meeting in Moscow from 27 June to 3 July 1974, held in the shadow of the Watergate scandal and under pressure from conservative opponents of arms control, brought no further progress on strategic arms limitations, although the ABM treaty was amended to reduce the number of ABM systems permitted from two to one.

After Nixon's resignation, President Gerald R. Ford met Brezhnev at Vladivostok on 23 and 24 November 1974, where they agreed on the outlines for a SALT II agreement. From 30 July to 2 August 1975, the two leaders met again in Helsinki during a signing ceremony of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Cooling relations brought about by the collapse of Saigon, superpower rivalry in Angola, and trade disputes lessened the possibility of progress toward a second SALT agreement, as did the upcoming American elections, in which Ford avoided all references to "détente" to resist challenges from the right.

The unpopularity of détente continued to grow during President Jimmy Carter's term. By the time he met Brezhnev in Vienna from 15 to 18 June 1979, relations with the Soviet Union had deteriorated over trade restrictions, Third World conflicts, U.S. rapprochement with China, and human rights. The two leaders were able to sign a SALT II agreement but Senate conservatives opposed the treaty and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December ended any hope of ratification.

President Ronald Reagan's first term was marked by remilitarization and a heightening of Cold War tensions that sowed fears that the superpowers might be sliding toward nuclear war, creating a mass antiwar movement in the United States and Europe. In response, Reagan met the new, reformist Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, at a "getacquainted summit" at Geneva from 19 to 21 November 1985, where despite a lack of agreement on nuclear arms reductions, the two leaders established warm personal relations. They met again in Reykjavik, Iceland, on 11 and 12 October 1986, and agreed to reduce intermediate-range nuclear missiles, but deadlocked over Reagan's devotion to space-based missile defense. At a third meeting in Washington from 7 to 10 December 1987, the two leaders signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, requiring the elimination of all U.S. and Soviet INF missiles. A fourth meeting in Moscow from 20 May to 2 June 1988, was more notable for the media images of Reagan strolling through the heart of what he had formerly called "the Evil Empire" than for the minor arms control agreements signed, and a final meeting in New York on 7 December was largely ceremonial.

End of the Cold War

The rapid pace of political change in Eastern Europe in 1989 led President George H. W. Bush to hold a shipboard meeting with Gorbachev off Malta on 2 and 3 December 1989. Although no agreements were signed, statements of goodwill indicated, as Gorbachev put it, that the era of the Cold War was ending. This was reinforced at a Washington summit from 31 May to 3 June 1990, when agreements on a range of issues including trade and chemical weapons were signed in an atmosphere of cooperation not seen since the height of détente. Gorbachev was invited to a Group of Seven meeting in London on 17 and 18 July 1991, where he and Bush agreed to sign a START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) treaty at a full summit in Moscow on 30 and 31 July. The Moscow meeting proved to be the last superpower summit, as the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the year.

Summits after the Cold War

Between 1992 and 2000, Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton met more than twenty times with Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin or Vladimir Putin at bilateral summits or individually at multilateral venues. Talks on further nuclear arms reductions and securing the former Soviet arsenal and nuclear materials were a feature of many of the summits. At a Moscow meeting on 2 and 3 January 1993, Bush and Yeltsin signed the START II Treaty, promising to reduce each country's nuclear arsenal to between 3,000–3,500 warheads within ten years. Yeltsin used various summit meetings to argue unsuccessfully against the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Clinton often pressed Yeltsin and Putin to seek a peaceful resolution to Russia's conflict with its secessionist province of Chechnya. Another regular feature of the discussions was the attempt by the Russian leaders to obtain better trade relations and economic aid from Western countries and institutions, and American pressure to link such concessions to structural reform of Russia's economy. The diminished drama and increased frequency of the meetings compared with the Cold War years confirmed the extent to which relations between the two countries had normalized by the end of the twentieth century.


Boyle, Peter G. American-Soviet Relations: From the Russian Revolution to the Fall of Communism. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Garthoff, Raymond L. The Great Transition: American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994.

LaFeber, Walter. America, Russia, and the Cold War, 1945–1996. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Paterson, Thomas G. American Foreign Relations. 5th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Weihmiller, Gordon R. U.S.-Soviet Summits: An Account of East-West Diplomacy at the Top, 1955–1985. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986.

Max PaulFriedman

See alsoArms Race and Disarmament ; Cold War .

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