Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at NYU and Princeton, and John Batchelor continue their (usually) weekly discussions of the new US-Russian Cold War. (You can find previous installments, now in their fifth year, at TheNation.com.)
Discussing the apparent decision to hold a prepared Trump-Putin meeting in July, Cohen points out there have been dozens of such US-Soviet/Russian top leadership events since the precedent was set by FDR and Stalin in 1943, during World War II. That was a meeting of allies, and included Winston Churchill. After the war, all the rest have been between the two Cold War “superpower” rivals or purportedly post–Cold War leaders. Every American president after FDR participated in at least one summit with his Soviet or Russian counterpart, and some presidents in multiple ones, including Eisenhower with Khrushchev, Reagan and George H.W. Bush with Gorbachev, and Clinton with Yeltsin.
If “summits” with large agendas and all of their political and media rituals are distinguished from occasional meetings on the “sidelines” of other events, the former have usually had several purposes: to solidify a mutual national-security partnership between the two leaders, typically on behalf of improving relations, or what became known as détente; to enhance both leaders’ political standing at home and in the world; to send a message to their respective elites and bureaucracies that obstructing, let alone sabotaging, the leader’s détente policy will no longer be tolerated; and by way of announced agreements and positive media coverage to broaden domestic elite and popular support for détente. Summit agendas have varied over the decades, some shaped by ongoing regional or other issues, but one item has been constant from Eisenhower and Khrushchev in the 1950s to Obama and then–Russian President Medvedev in 2009: managing and reducing existential dangers inherent in the “nuclear superpower arms race.”
Full summits have had various results. Some had few consequences for better or worse. The third Eisenhower-Khrushchev meeting in Paris in 1960 was aborted by the Soviet shoot-down of a US U-2 spy plane (sent, some think, by “deep state” foes of Eisenhower’s détente policy). Several summits were historic achievements, at least eventually. The Eisenhower-Khrushchev “spirit of Camp David” in the 1950s diminished the mutually isolating Cold War that prevailed until Stalin’s death in 1953, opening up new possibilities for “peaceful coexistence.” Nixon and Brezhnev established the modern tradition of détente, in the 1970s, including the expanded role of summits in that process. The multiple Reagan-Bush-Gorbachev summits claimed to have ended the Cold War. Several summits did more longer-term harm than good, particularly the highly touted Clinton-Yeltsin meetings, which were mostly decorative covering for Clinton’s winner-take-all approach to a weakened post-Soviet Russia; and Obama’s with Medvedev—the “reset” summit—which was badly conceived and conducted by the White House. During his 18 years as Russia’s leader, Putin has had two full summits with American presidents, though both are mostly forgotten or ill-remembered: with Clinton in Moscow in 2000 and with George W. Bush in Washington and at the latter’s Texas ranch in 2001. Clinton and Bush spoke positively about Putin at the time, but, of course, do so no longer. (Therein lies a serious debate yet to be had as to who and what changed, and why.)