The high-risk drama of summits past reflected their rarity and unpredictability. This way's better. Summitsaren't what they used to be, and I say thank God for that. True, as a great deal of commentary has pointed out over the past few days, much of the glamour, suspense and personal drama characteristic of these meetings at the political apex has been missing from the Bush-Gorbachev encounter. But the excitement of summits past was pretty much a function of more dangerous conditions. I don't pretend that what with the turmoil in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and the continued deployment of tens of thousands of nuclear warheads around the world we do not live amid dangers. But much of the high-risk drama of summit conferences used to proceed from the rarity and consequent unpredictability of the meeting itself. Would the two touchy national supremos, each incurring some domestic risk by meeting at all and each watchdog-jealous of his own political standing and his country's basic interests, get along? Might bad personal vibes or big misunderstandings make the relationship between their countries worse? It is that part of summit meetings which used to provide the spectator-sport fun and which is now pretty well a thing of the past.
True, summits still produce: world-class traffic gridlock; breathless saturation media coverage; lots of screaming sirens, and acres of spun sugar and pate'. But the heart of the event has lost its thrill, which is to say, its chanciness, its possibility of a personal chemistry-induced disaster. For one thing, U.S.-Soviet meetings at the top have become more frequent, familiar and institutionalized and thus less dependent on the quality of the contact between two previously unengaged personalities. For another, we are involved in so many continuous negotiations with each other that these things have become, in a way, more or less the diplomatic equivalent of regular senior-staff meetings. And finally, of course, there is the interesting fact that astounding developments in Eastern Europe in particular and around the world in general have made pretty plain the limits on what political leaders can do -- even a leader who has taken as many cataclysmically important steps as Gorbachev. If we know anything now, it is that popular forces are loose in the world that leaders can hope only to manage or channel.
All this made the 1990 U.S.-Soviet summit the particular event it was. It had only the palest manifestations of the classic elements of great power summit confrontations down through the centuries. One of these has always been mutual curiosity and, often, an odd mutual respect on the part of larger-than-life antagonists who have been contending without benefit of introduction for years -- a sort of Smiley-versus-Karla thing. They may never actually meet but still converse and communicate through emissaries, and exchange gifts, compliments and courtesies when not trying to murder each other. Saladin, the great defender against the European crusades, and Richard Lionheart, his brilliant antagonist, were spectacular examples of this. Bush and Gorbachev already knew a lot about each other, and their curiosity was probably confined to how the other man would react to the current political pressures on him, not what kind of beast he was in the first place.
It is also in the nature of these two relatively unpretentious men -- not a lot of patience on the part of either with overdone protocol, gluey formality, who-goes-first choreography -- that you wouldn't have one of those status impasses that have wonderfully confounded great diplomatic events since anyone can remember. There are hilarious accounts of royal "progresses" -- as the movement of an entire regal household through Europe and Asia Minor was once known -- that bogged down in the most unyielding of conflicts between the petty demands of royal travelers and royal hosts for pride of place in the encounter. And this was also often true of their representatives, especially those who felt the need to compensate for their relative disadvantage in wealth and power. Peter the Great's ambassadors did not exactly ingratiate themselves or Peter with the Sun King, Robert K. Massie informs us, by demanding "that when this foreign monarch received them, he should inquire formally after the health of the Tsar and, while so doing, rise and remove his hat." The importance the Soviets have always attached in summit proceedings to accordance of status as an equal superpower can hardly touch the hat-doffing demand.
Still, there have been modern variations on the ancient strains that marked such encounters. Where there has been stark unfamiliarity and profound antagonism to be mediated, there has always been electricity. We forget now, how in the early post-Stalin era when none of the prominent Kremlin successors had ever even been West, great drama and anxiety surrounded their first ventures and the first summit meeting between Khrushchev and Ike. Nixon in China had some of these same qualities. So did Sadat in Jerusalem. And so even did John F. Kennedy's unhappy mission to Vienna to meet Khrushchev, who took a contemptuous and hostile measure of him and for a time thereafter behaved accordingly. Even though things can still go terribly wrong and disappointments can be large, not nearly so much rides on these meetings as once did.
Last week, having parked, as usual, in a space off the alley behind my office, I found myself walking casually past a short, stocky Soviet military guy who was all tricked out in his red and brown officer's regalia. Some general, I supposed, taking a shortcut to the Soviet Embassy in the next block where Gorbachev was staying -- it seemed utterly unexceptional, so used to it have we become. This acceptance of U.S.-Soviet summit meetings as somehow routine is of course what has made the journalistic razzmatazz seem so out of sync with the event's meaning. We should welcome this development, not worry that something has gone wrong. What it says is that two men who know each other at least passably well and who speak from assumptions the other can at least understand are confident and comfortable enough in their relationship to make the rest of us feel it is the most normal thing in the world for them to be down the street trying to negotiate a little more security and equity and a little less danger in the world. Peter the Great and the Sun King are history. Be grateful. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.