Not the medium but the message
Joshua Muravchik at Commentary reviews the history of summitry from Potsdam to Nixon in China and concludes that personal contact between leaders is no substitute for sound diplomacy based on a shrewd appreciation of national interests. In fact the illusion that "world peace" is automatically advanced by talking proved fatal on more than one occasion. Muravchik notes that two of the most disastrous meetings in recent history -- between Neville Chamberlain and Hitler in Munich and Truman (I had earlier written FDR) with Joseph Stalin in Potsdam -- set the stage for conflicts which would subsequently shake the world. Chamberlain believed that if one summit was good, then several would be even better. Muravchik writes that "the story of Munich itself has been too often told to bear repeating, but it is worth recalling that it was not a single meeting but a series of three, with each serving to embolden Hitler further."
The chief danger when two heads of state meet to resolve conflicts occurs when one, who has no clear idea of his own national interests, is manipulated by his counterpart by playing on his vanity, credulousness or innocence. Even illness and physical weakness can be exploited. Stalin knew how to play the dying FDR like a fiddle.
In April 1943, the American ambassador in Moscow conveyed FDR’s wish to “sit down with Stalin and talk over problems” so as to avoid any “lack of understanding.” As the President wrote Churchill, “I think I can handle Stalin better than either your foreign office or my State Department. . . . He thinks he likes me better, and I intend to keep it that way.” Stalin played on these illusions like a drum, maneuvering for Western assent to postwar Soviet rule over Eastern Europe while answering every appeal for moderation by referring to supposed hardliners in the Kremlin who were making it “impossible for me to fulfill your wish.”
Barack Obama, however, may view things differently. Obama implied that international tensions, and in particular the fall the Berlin Wall occurred largely because Presidents like Reagan were willing to talk to the Soviet Union. (See a video of Obama saying so here). He was pointedly contrasting the process of reaching out from what suggested was a timorousness in the Bush administration based on fear. At a speech he emphasized that it was important to reach out, implying that all diplomatic progress sprang from an outstretched hand:
Strong countries and strong Presidents talk to their adversaries. That’s what Kennedy did with Khrushchev. That’s what Reagan did with Gorbachev. That’s what Nixon did with Mao. I mean, think about it: Iran, Cuba, Venezuela — these countries are tiny compared to the Soviet Union. They don’t pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us. And yet we were willing to talk to the Soviet Union at the time when they were saying, ‘We’re going to wipe you off the planet.’ And ultimately, that direct engagement led to a series of measures that helped prevent nuclear war and over time allowed the kind of opening that brought down the Berlin Wall.
The idea that personal communications inherently carries within it the seed of understanding is the political analogue of Marshall McLuhan's famous adage that the "medium is the message". In this line of thinking, whenever the medium is personal, the message is peace. But surely this is a half-truth. Historically, the outcomes of a President talking to hostile leaders depended not simply on the unmediated conversation, but more critically upon the substance of the discussion. It depended on what was said and conceded. For example, French Prime Minister Pierre Laval had many conversations with the the Nazis for the purpose of cooperating with them. Laval was executed as a traitor in postwar France. In contrast Eisenhower's staff also spent some hours talking to General Jodl for the purpose of arranging the surrender of German forces. Eisenhower was welcomed as a hero by an adoring public. The difference between the two negotiations can be summed up as follows: same medium, different message.
Nowhere is the paramountcy of content over medium more greatly emphasized than in politically correct speech codes. Larry Summers discovered to his cost that speaking to a group of feminists on the subject of gender and intelligence could get him fired. Summers
suggested that, after the conflict between employers' demands for high time commitments and women's disproportionate role in the raising of children, the next most important factor might be the above-mentioned greater variance in intelligence among men than women, and that this difference in variance might be intrinsic, adding that he "would like nothing better than to be proved wrong." The controversy generated a great deal of media attention, forced Summers to resign, and led Harvard to commit $50 million to the recruitment and hiring of women faculty.
Summers' offense was not in the saying, but in what he said. Recently, a webmaster in the Netherlands was arrested for remarks that a commenter had left on his site without any prior request from the authorities to remove the offending material. They simply arrived to arrest him. Perhaps to justify their actions, Dutch authorities argued that because the website contained the wrong tone it was a hate crime waiting to happen. The webmaster was going to be guilty sooner or later anway. “The judge clearly indicated that the contents of texts placed on sites are the responsibility of the manager ... The manager placed negative news items about Muslims and links to extremist sites. He could therefore expect that punishable texts would be placed on his site.” Again the offense was not in the posting, but in what was posted. "Hate speech" is proof, if any were needed, that the message is the message.
How then can it be maintained that summitry itself is an intrinsic good? A summit might actually aggravate the relationships between the United States and Iran, Cuba, Venezuela if the President resolutely opposes certain of their key demands. Only if the President goes along will negotiations proceed smoothly. To avoid that difficulty, it is normally left to lower-ranking officials to identify the differences and resolve them beforehand. For that reason summits are normally postponed until basic agreement is worked out at lower levels in preparation for a final meeting between the two principals.
Upon closer examination it is clear that Obama himself doesn't believe in the unqualified virtues of face to face meetings either. Bill Richardson and Susan Rice, both Obama supporters, modified BHO's willingness to rely on "direct engagement" in an video interview. They said that an Obama administration would not talk directly to Hamas -- although they did not rule negotiation by proxy. Since Hamas is even weaker than Cuba, which Obama scathingly described as weaker than the Soviet Union, why exactly is it bad to have a summit with Hamas? And moreover, since by Richardson's own admission indirect negotiations are exactly what the Bush administration was doing already, then what remained of Obama's claim that "strong countries and strong Presidents talk to their adversaries" and the distinction between himself and President Bush? Maybe only the suspicion that the more things changed in Washington, the more they remained the same.