As the US president, Joe Biden, meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Geneva, there are low expectations about what a summit can achieve given the level of distrust in the US-Russian relationship. John Bolton, a former US national security adviser has stated that he thinks a Biden-Putin summit is “premature” because it won’t resolve “a long list of potential disagreements and conflicts with Russia”.
US-Russian summits do not always produce major agreements or improve relations, but as John F. Kennedy famously said: “It is far better that we meet at the summit than at the brink.”
Against the backdrop of increasing tension over Berlin, Kennedy met his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev 60 years ago this month in Vienna. Kennedy came away from the summit with a better understanding of Khrushchev and his intentions, but the two failed to develop a trusting relationship. Khrushchev dominated the tense and sometimes hostile interaction. As Kennedy noted shortly after the face-to-face exchange: “It’s going to be a very cold winter.” The Cuban missile crisis followed a year later.
The failed outcome of Vienna, at least from Kennedy’s point of view, and the difficult meeting between Donald Trump and Putin at Helsinki in July 2018 lends support to the narrative articulated by Bolton and other analysts that summits cannot achieve progress unless the political interests of the parties are already aligned. According to this logic, summitry is best pursued when leaders are already close to agreement and can guarantee a positive outcome. But before we agree with Bolton, it is worth remembering another US-Soviet summit in Geneva in November 1985.
President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev met for the first time amid similar warnings of premature summitry. Against the backdrop of the tense superpower standoff of the early 1980s, when there was a heightened risk of nuclear war, both leaders committed publicly to the notion that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and that neither side would “seek to achieve military superiority”.
Building mutual trust
Perhaps more important – and transformational – to ending US-Soviet enmity, was the personal bond that developed between Reagan and Gorbachev, and the trust that this made possible between these two leaders of formerly enemy states.
As we argue in our recent research, face-to-face interaction at the highest levels of diplomacy opens up new possibilities for two leaders to gain a better understanding of each other’s intentions and, under certain and specific conditions, develop a personal relationship of trust. What Reagan and Gorbachev were able to do that Kennedy and Khrushchev were not, was put themselves in the shoes of the other and recognise the importance of reassuring the other of their country’s peaceful intent.
Geneva 1985 did not produce a big new sweeping agreement – but this should not be the litmus test of a successful summit. As the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said last week: “There’s nothing like face-to-face engagement in diplomacy.”
Whatever the public relations and domestic political benefits (or pitfalls) of a face-to-face encounter for the US and Russian presidents, such diplomacy provides unparalleled opportunities to credibly signal intent, read the intentions of others, and develop bonds of trust.
The Geneva 1985 summit began a process of interpersonal trust-building that made possible the major breakthroughs in US-Soviet relations (including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Gorbachev’s proposed sweeping cuts in conventional forces) later in the decade.
The challenge for Biden and Putin is whether, like Reagan and Gorbachev before them, they can convince the other that they believe the only security between their two countries is mutual security and that neither leader believes the path to security lies in the other’s insecurity.
If each can leave the summit with this reassurance then, unlike their counterparts 60 years ago, they will have contributed to the urgent goal of reducing the risks of nuclear conflict.