In This Review

Summits: Six Meetings That Changed the Twentieth Century
Summits: Six Meetings That Changed the Twentieth Century
By David Reynolds
Basic Books, 2007, 544 pp

In this engaging history of the great summits of the twentieth century, Reynolds, a distinguished Cambridge historian and Churchill scholar, provides a fresh retelling of six pivotal meetings of world leaders in an effort to capture the larger and evolving significance of this diplomatic art form. He argues that modern summitry came of age with Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich in 1938 and was carried forward at Yalta in 1945 and into the Cold War with Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1961, Nixon and Brezhnev in 1972, and Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985. The key ingredients for such grand summitry are relatively recent: air travel, which allowed for timely meetings; weapons of mass destruction, which raised the stakes; and modern mass media, which turned summits into global spectacles. Reynolds is unabashedly intrigued by the personal drama of these diplomatic encounters, drawing on summit records and firsthand accounts to provide vivid detail. But the impact of summits on war and peace is the essential question, and here Reynolds finds mixed results. He sees the Reagan-Gorbachev summits as the most successful, allowing these leaders to build trust and providing their foreign ministers with a diplomatic vehicle to maneuver around bureaucratic opponents. The era of great summits, as Reynolds sees it, is over, but if great-power politics reemerges, so, too, will this form of diplomacy. Certainly, the belief of world leaders that they can bend history through acts of personal diplomacy has not perished.