Summit Lessons and Hanoi: A Road to Redemption or Perdition?

The February 27-28 summit in Hanoi between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un ended without an agreement on denuclearization or progress on normalization of US-DPRK relations and building a peace and security regime for the Korean Peninsula—the two main objectives the two sides agreed to at their June 2018 summit in Singapore. Yet, while Trump and Kim were likely disappointed in flying home empty-handed, the final verdict is still out. Summits are not always the one-time, all-or-nothing diplomatic showdowns so often portrayed in the media. In some cases, they can serve as bridges to a brighter future between two adversarial governments. And in others, the US overreaches, misreads the positions of the parties or their bottom lines are simply too irreconcilable to bridge.

Kennedy and Khrushchev Knock Heads in 1961

In June 1961, President John F. Kennedy sat down with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna for his first and only direct head-to-head meeting with the Soviet premier. Coming weeks after the Bay of Pigs debacle, the summit was intended to bring the world’s two superpowers together in order to arrive at an understanding on the contested status of a divided Berlin. Washington increasingly considered the division unsustainable and dangerous, a possible prelude to direct military confrontation between nuclear powers in the heart of Europe.

The meeting was a disaster for Kennedy, who was caught completely unprepared by the older Khrushchev’s aggressiveness and diatribes against the United States. Despite warnings from his national security advisers to avoid philosophical discussions about communism, Kennedy chose to do precisely that. The decision allowed the Soviet premier to dominate the discussions and lambast Kennedy as a young politician out of his depth. Kennedy would later describe his exchange with Khrushchev as the “Worst thing in my life. He savaged me.” Indeed, in terms of deliverables, the summit was a total failure—the Berlin question remained unresolved, US-Soviet relations took a nosedive, and the threat of nuclear conflict would continue to hang over the two superpowers until a period of détente a decade later.

Viewed more than 60 years later, however, the Kennedy-Khrushchev summit proved to be a pivotal point in the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. In interacting directly for the first time, the two leaders learned about one another’s personal foibles and negotiating styles. Both came to a better understanding of the other, knowledge that would be enormously valuable to Kennedy in successfully navigating a peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And two years after the Vienna fiasco, the US and the Soviet Union concluded the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Reagan and Gorbachev: Success Through Failure

A similar experience occurred between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, two men who until their rendezvous in Reykjavik in October 1986 were wary of engaging with each other on strategic arms control issues. After over a year of preparations between US and Soviet diplomats and a volley of offers and counteroffers, Reagan and Gorbachev finally agreed to meet in person to hash out their differences in an attempt to dramatically slash the nuclear arms of both superpowers. When the summit in Reykjavik concluded without a formal agreement, there was a sense of doom and gloom over the prospect that the failure portended increased tensions and an escalation of the arms race

While Gorbachev would call Reykjavik “sad and disappointing,” he also remarked that the talks were not entirely unproductive. Both leaders walk away from the table with a better appreciation of each other’s intentions and constraints. As Yale University historian John Lewis Gaddis would recount in the New Yorker, the failure at Reykjavik was instrumental to later success. Through heated discussions on existential topics, the world’s two most powerful individuals established a personal connection with one another. “[B]oth Reagan and Gorbachev realized as they drove away what an amazing event it had been,” Gaddis said. “They astounded each other and their aides about how much they had in common in their views on their arsenals. It created a bond that survived through the end of Reagan’s Presidency”—a connection that helped pave the way, 14 months later, for Reagan and Gorbachev to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty—the most significant arms control agreement in the Cold War era.

Ill-Prepared and Ill-Timed Summits Can Undermine Success

High-risk summits don’t always produce second chances. Indeed, sometimes they can lead to failures that foreclose opportunities for agreements. And nowhere is the track record for these summits better than in the Middle East, especially when it comes to promoting Arab-Israeli peace. Even though the US drove much of the Arab-Israeli negotiating process in the 1990s, it also convened two summits that instead of producing some new beginning, ended any near-term chances of successful agreements.

 Assad and Clinton

The March 2000 summit in Geneva between US President Bill Clinton and Syrian President Hafez al Assad was the last round of a tortured process of US efforts to broker an agreement between Israel and Syria that had begun at Madrid almost nine years earlier. The focus of this last-ditch effort was to close on the most important point that had stymied Israeli-Syrian negotiations—Assad wanted Israel to agree to the June 4, 1967 lines as the final border between Israel and Syria in return for meeting Israel’s needs on water, security and normal peaceful relations. Assad would not meet directly with then Israeli Prime Minister Barak, so Clinton’s task was to take Barak’s final offer to Assad in Geneva for a make-or-break moment. Assuming Assad agreed, the meeting would presumably pave the way for an Assad-Barak-Clinton summit and a final Israel-Syrian peace treaty

Most of this was magical thinking. Barak conveyed his final offer to Clinton an hour before the meeting with Assad was to convene. It fell short of what Assad required. Barak seemed to believe that Clinton could somehow convince Assad of Israel’s seriousness and persuade him to meet with Barak to cut a dramatic deal with the Syrian leader. Clinton didn’t press Barack to improve his offer because he believed it was reasonable, and the rest was predictable. Expecting Clinton to convey Barak’s commitment to the June 4 line, Assad wouldn’t budge. Assad would die in June, taking with him whatever hope there was for a resumption of negotiations and a final agreement.

Clinton, Arafat and Barak

The failure of Geneva helped lay the basis for the failure of the July 2000 Camp David summit and the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian talks. Eager to take advantage of the last six months of Clinton’s tenure, Barak pushed for a summit with Yasser Arafat. Clinton agreed. Barak, adopting many of the tactics he used in Geneva, saw the summit as another make-or-break moment. This time Clinton would press Arafat with Israeli (and US) ideas on all the big issues—Jerusalem, refugees, borders, security—that would go further than any previous Israeli offer, but nowhere near what would be required to meet Palestinian needs. Having offered Assad 99.9 percent of the Golan Heights, Arafat was not going to accept 92 percent of the West Bank. Indeed, Arafat had warned the American side in June that a summit was risky; he came to survive the summit rather than concede on issues that diverged fundamentally from Palestinian core positions.

Like Geneva, the Camp David summit was ill-advised and ill-prepared. Clinton’s praising Barak and his blaming Arafat for the summit’s failure didn’t help. Even though Arafat and Barak would have one of their best meetings several months later, there was no way the gaps on the core issues, especially Jerusalem, could be bridged. After US presidential elections, Clinton would try one last time in December to bridge gaps by putting US ideas on the table. Arafat, waiting for the Bush administration, refused to respond. Barak would go on to lose an election to Ariel Sharon in the biggest political defeat in Israel’s election history.

Several factors accounted for the failure at both summits: President Clinton overestimated his force of personality and powers of persuasion; the US side wrongly analyzed what the Arab side needed to close a deal; there was little trust between the parties; and the US was far too willing to carry Israeli water instead of developing its own proposals. But the bottom line was that Israeli and Palestinian positions on the core issues were simply too wide to be bridged.

Lessons for Trump and Kim

As the brief history above illustrates, summits have a mixed track record of success. Sometimes they can result in a groundbreaking agreement of historic consequence. But in many cases, they conclude with no agreement and kill any goodwill between the opposing parties for a resumption of serious talks in the future. There are several lessons Trump, Kim and their teams would find useful from previous summitry.

First, leaving a summit empty-handed does not necessarily mean the event was a waste of time or the entire diplomatic process will inevitably collapse. As former Reagan arms control negotiator Ken Adelman wrote in Politico immediately after Hanoi, “bounce-back is possible.” Reagan and Gorbachev showed in the months after Reykjavik that principled diplomacy between two adversaries can still occur if there is political will and determination on the part of both sides and a willingness to push on regardless of obstacles along the way. The reverse, however, is also true. The Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian summits revealed what can occur when the US misreads what’s required to reach a deal and overestimates its leverage to hash out a deal. Even more important, the US needs to have a realistic assessment of whether a deal is even possible.

If any success is to be attained in US-DPRK diplomacy, Washington and Pyongyang both must guard against the tendency to misinterpret each other’s bottom-lines. For the United States, this means accepting the fact that the Kim regime will resist trading its nuclear deterrent away in exchange for the promise of sanctions relief and diplomatic normalization down the line. And for the North Koreans, it means recognizing that the political climate in Washington precludes comprehensive and immediate sanctions relief, especially for what are perceived as limited or symbolic moves on denuclearization.

Second, diplomacy will take time. The Trump administration must never lose sight of the reality that discussions over nuclear weapons are existential for the North Koreans. If Kim is open to denuclearization—and there is a mountain of reasons to suggest he may not be—the White House would be foolish to expect this objective to be achieved in a matter of months. That’s also the lesson from Middle East summitry. Issues like borders, refugees and Jerusalem are seen to be politically or physically existential. President Trump is a notoriously impatient man, but if he has any chance of being more successful than his predecessors, he will need to engage in incremental, bare-knuckled, give-and-take haggling.

Third, adjusting goals and lowering the bar are often critical ingredients to successful deal-making. Ideal outcomes are typically unattainable, particularly when the countries at the opposite ends of the table have to overcome decades of animosity and deep mistrust. Successful diplomacy is all about compromise and consensus; if these two key ingredients are missing, both parties might as well walk away and not waste any more time.

It’s Not Over Until It’s Over

Trump and Kim should learn from this history. Washington must accept the stubborn reality, however unpalatable, that North Korea will not consider full and verified denuclearization until the bilateral relationship with the United States is normalized and Pyongyang no longer sees America as its enemy. The Trump administration’s continued insistence that Pyongyang accept its maximalist position on denuclearization before diplomatic, political and economic normalization is even offered is a terrific way to strangle the diplomatic baby in its crib. For Pyongyang, moving up the learning curve means appreciating that a suspension of the most economically impactful US and UN sanctions is a totally unrealistic ask unless it is willing to offer significant concessions in return—such as an internationally verified freeze and rollback of nuclear fuel and missile production at overt and covert locations across the country.

Trump, Kim and the world hoped for far more progress in Hanoi. The two leaders could climb out of the hole they have dug for themselves like Reagan and Gorbachev after Reykjavik—or both could experience the failure of two high-level summits in a matter of months. At this point, with no agreement on a long-term road map for denuclearization, it’s an open question whether their negotiating process can recover from the setback or regain the momentum required for success.

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