Summit Conferences - Characteristics of a summit conference

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World War II and then asserting that a summit conference first took place in 1955), it is also unduly restrictive and outdated.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.

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