As the goings-on in Copenhagen demonstrate, the international summit has been gradually diluted over the last 50 years from a history-making occasion to little more than a pompous Shriners’ convention — no more stylish, and not as benign.
When Pope St. Leo I met Attila the Hun in 452 and mysteriously persuaded him not to march on Rome, the ancient world held its breath, and history was made. The meeting of Henry VIII and France’s King Francis I on the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, like the meeting of Napoleon and Czar Alexander I on a raft on the Neman River at Tilsit in 1807, was an epochal occasion that has entered into the general knowledge of the Western world.
Tilsit, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (with the czar, Talleyrand, Metternich, Wellington, Castlereagh, Consalvi, and others), and the Congress of Berlin in 1878, where Disraeli and Bismarck and the dashing and cunning Hungarian, Andrassy, were the leading personalities, were the only real summit conferences in the 19th century. The principal figures at these and subsequent real summit meetings were leaders of historic stature, decades of prominence, and usually legendary cunning. Disraeli returned from Berlin with “Peace with Honour,” and, unlike that of subsequent employers of that expression (including Neville Chamberlain and Richard Nixon), his description was confirmed by events.
For most of the 20th century, “summit conference” was an accurate description. At Versailles in 1919, Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau, David Lloyd George, and Vittorio Orlando, attended by a richly varied host of secondary players, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walter Lippmann, Lawrence of Arabia, John Maynard Keynes, and Ho Chi Minh, wrestled unsuccessfully with the challenges of remaking the world. The Munich Conference of 1938, between Hitler, Chamberlain, Benito Mussolini, and Édouard Daladier, though dishonorable and unsuccessful, at least had serious purposes and a grimly serious host, and averted war for almost a year.
The Churchill-Roosevelt conferences, their summit meetings with Stalin at Tehran and Yalta, and the meeting of President Truman, Clement Attlee, and Stalin at Potsdam in 1945 had immensely important purposes and consequences. The wartime meetings were held in secret and were massively prepared.
President Eisenhower, cloaked in his military and political prestige, was the leading personality of the Geneva Conference of 1955, where he began the de-escalation of the Cold War with his open-skies proposal. This was the first meeting of Western and Soviet leaders in 10 years. Then summit meetings became more frequent and generally less consequential, but at least involved vital issues of the Cold War, climaxing in Richard Nixon’s 1972 meetings with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, and his state visit later that year to the USSR, the first of a U.S. president to that country and the most elaborate that would ever be held in Soviet history. The U.S. flag flew over the Kremlin, and SALT I, the most important arms-control agreement in history, was signed.
Meetings of U.S. and Soviet leaders became annual events, with a five-year pause after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Then came the Reagan-Gorbachev meetings, which led to the fall of the Iron Curtain, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the end of Soviet-American rivalry, and the reunification of Germany.
With the end of the Cold War and the evolution of China into a powerful capitalist economy, there was less for government leaders to discuss with any urgency, but more time to discuss it, and portentous meetings proliferated. G7 economic summits had started as G5s (U.S., U.K., Japan, Germany, and France), and had added Italy and then, at U.S. insistence because the Americans didn’t want to be swarmed numerically by Europe, Canada. Then G7 welcomed the EU, Russia, and China, and the competition for the perfect number began, up to (so far) G20.
Then came itinerant meetings by subject and region: the environment, trade, arms control, antagonism to racism; all those on the vast Pacific shores, from Victoria (Canada) to Victoria (Australia) by way of Vladivostok and Valparaiso; the Mediterranean, Africa, Latin America, the Arabs, the Commonwealth, the French Community (incongruously headed by an Egyptian). It is little wonder popular culture rebelled against the tyranny of “the suits.” (Instead of disbanding their conferences, many of the offenders just shed their neckties.)
World leaders became like (always) traveling salesmen. They could be seen every few nights on television striding purposefully from elongated automobiles escorted by swarms of motorcycle outriders, and into formidable buildings, their aides puffing behind, heavy-laden with bulging briefcases. In Copenhagen, the requirement for immense limousines necessitated that they be requisitioned from Berlin and other distant places, like the taxis of Paris at the First Battle of the Marne in 1914. An aerated, pre-written press release heralds the move on to the next group photo-op. It is an itinerant convention of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.