Asean, G20: Summits are peak diplomacy

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL September 17, 2023
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The Big Story:

Like students heading back to school, diplomats and world leaders are converging at summits, international gatherings with a set theme and objective. The term “summit” for high-level international diplomacy was coined by Winston Churchill in February 1950. (Read on to find out why.)

Apart from the very first Africa Climate Summit, two important international gatherings of world leaders are underway this week. The 10 members of the 56-year-old Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meet in Jakarta, Indonesia, along with a disparate group of partners: the United States, China, Russia, Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. US vice president Kamala Harris, Japan’s prime minister Fumio Kishida, Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak will attend.

At week’s end, world leaders will gather for the G20 Summit in New Delhi, India. US president Joe Biden will be at this annual meeting of the world’s leading developed and emerging economies. The G20 includes the European Union.

The Backstory:

International summits have become an institutionalised part of the world order. The G7, Asean, G20, United Nations, European Council and the African Union regularly hold summits. But these gatherings have a chequered history. The Munich Agreement – 85 years ago this month – came after a meeting of Britain, France, Italy and Germany, which permitted Hitler to annex the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia. That summit failed in its attempt to prevent war.

Then there was the 1986 Reykjavik summit between US president Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev. It became a turning point in the Cold War, with both leaders agreeing that nuclear weapons needed to be eliminated.

This week’s summits have issues. Asean is miffed that Biden is sending his deputy while he attends the G20. The G20 is annoyed that China’s president Xi Jinping is a no-show. (Unlike Biden, Xi is skipping both Asean and the G20, so not picking favourites).

This Week, Those Books:

Cambridge historian David Reynolds’ masterful recounting of six pivotal 20th century summits that shaped the world order and a novel H G Wells wrote 110 years ago about a summit that creates Utopia.

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  • Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century

By: David Reynolds

Publisher: Penguin

Year: 2007

Noted academic David Reynolds explains how the term ‘summit’ evolved in international diplomacy. “In the dark days of the Cold War”, he writes, Churchill called for talks with the Soviet Union at the highest level, adding that it is is “not easy to see how matters could be worsened by a parley at the summit”. The reason for this talk of summits was ongoing attempts to scale Everest, the world’s highest peak. Starting in 1950, Churchill continued to speak of the need for a “summit of nations”. In May 1953, he did so again in the British parliament. By month’s end, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay had become the first known human beings to stand on the highest point on Earth.

As Reynolds writes, “the Everest obsession helps explain why Churchill’s metaphor rooted itself in popular consciousness”. By 1955, “summit was picked up as an official term by the US State Department. Cartoonists portrayed world leaders eyeing a peak or perched uncomfortably on its top”.

But summitry is as old as diplomacy itself, Reynolds notes, with examples dating back to Bronze Age Babylon, fourth century BC Greece, the Byzantine Empire and most famously, between England’s Henry VIII and France’s Francois I on the so-called Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

His specific focus is six significant summits of the last century: Munich (1938), Yalta (1945), Vienna (1961), Moscow (1972), Camp David (1978) and Geneva (1985).

  • The World Set Free

By: H G Wells

Publisher: Macmillan

Year: 1914

One of H G Wells’ lesser-known novels, it deals with a summit called by a fictional French ambassador based in Washington in response to the threat posed by mankind’s power to wreak devastation by “atomic bombs”. Wells’ prediction of nuclear warfare, decades before Oppenheimer’s development of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, highlights the power of international summitry.

The fictional summit leads to an agreement to form a one-world government that will try to end all wars. Ironically, the book was published the year the First World War started.

A choice quote: “Men who think in lifetimes are of no use to statesmanship.”

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