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Anyone Notice the Summit Thing?

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Back from Kansas City, but still running behind… this is last week’s Diplomat column, on the differences between summiting in the Cold War and in the Era of Sino-American Ambivalence:

Early indications suggest that last week’s Sunnylands summit will have few lasting impacts on US-China relations; beyond a couple of minor embarrassments, the summit appears to have neither created any breakthroughs nor been marred by any significant gaffes. In the United States, national security leaks largely overwhelmed interest in the summit, overshadowing genuine concerns about cyber-conflict between China and the U.S.

This is a far cry from the great summit meetings of the 1980s, when every interaction between the U.S. president and the Soviet premier was covered in exhaustive detail. Of the many differences between the China-U.S. and U.S.-Soviet relationships, perhaps the greatest is that the former involves nearly constant interaction across a great variety of commercial, social, and political fields, while in the latter the moments of confrontation and dialogue were concentrated, sharp, and newsworthy.

One implication of this difference is that the summits between the U.S. and the USSR represented critical opportunities for shaping the superpower relationship in consequential ways, if only within the confines dictated by ideology and power. These were the only moments in which, so to speak, the two men on the train could communicate clearly. By contrast, the Obama-Xi summit was a more managerial affair, in which the two leaders essentially shared information on the performance of their respective outreach teams.

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