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 (1846–1848), 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 post–World 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?


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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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