Washington, 20 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - Speculation in advance of the Helsinki summit between U.S. President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin highlights why such meetings at the highest levels are both risky and inevitable.
Like its predecessor, this summit involves enormous risks because of the expectations it has already generated, the stakes involved when key decision makers meet face to face, and the further personalization of reltions between the two countries.
First of all, this summit like all its predecessors has generated enormous expectations on all sides. Some officials and observers believe that this summit will resolve tensions and thus allow for the eastward expansion of NATO and the integration of Russia into key European institutions.
Others fear that in the pursuit of these goals, the two leaders will reach an agreement that will compromise the interests and security of the countries of Eastern Europe.
And still others hope that the meeting will lead to an open break between Washington and Moscow, to an American appreciation of what they view as the continuing Russian threat to Eastern Europe and to greater American support for that region.
Obviously, the Helsinki summit cannot possibly satisfy all these hopes or justify all these fears, and as a result, at least some people and some countries will be disappointed with its outcome however happy the participants or other countries may be.
And such disappointments constitute a serious risk that everyone involved at the Helsinki meeting will have very much in mind.
Second, precisely because the top decision makers are involved, summits inevitably raise the stakes for everyone concerned. No one wants the summit to be deemed a failure, but equally no one wants to be seen as having made too many concessions to his opposite number.
Sometimes this has led summit participants to become more cautious face-to-face than they had been in advance of the meeting and thus to find a face-saving compromise for both. And the desire for just such an agreement often has meant that the side most interested in obtaining agreement will be forced to give in the most.
At other such meetings, however, this aspect of summitry has contributed to an open break between the two leaders, with each leaving the meeting without an agreement but with his principles, policy and pride in tact. When that has happened, broader relations between their countries have suffered considerably, yet another risk of summitry.
And third, summits inevitably personalize the relations between great powers. Instead of relations between the United States and the Russian Federation, such meetings inevitably call attention to the personal relationship of Clinton and Yeltsin.
Experience with earlier summits suggest that this shift too can have serious consequences. One or both of the leaders may decide that maintaining this personal relationship is more important than defending a particular policy line. And in such a case, the other may exploit that desire to gain his own ends.
Moreover, this personalization of international relations may reinforce the tendency of populations to look to a single leader rather than their government as a whole, a pattern that can undermine existing checks and balances in all countries and retard the development of such institutions in those countries where such institutions are still weak.
But ironically if not unexpectedly, each of these risks is also a reason why summits have been held in the past and will continue to take place in the future.
For many leaders and peoples, summits appear to offer the only way to resolve major issues precisely because such meetings bring the decision makers into direct contact. The high stakes nature of summits also attracts many eager to find quick and neat solutions to complex problems.
And the personalization of international relations at summits is in fact a major attraction for the leaders involved because they are certain to believe that they can use such meetings to their own advantage.
On the one hand, every leader is certain to believe that he has the personal skills necessary to win over any interlocutor. And on the other, each is likely to welcome the enormous public attention they receive during such meetings.
Such attention often has allowed leaders at past summits to escape the often grubby day-to-day world of domestic politics and normal international exchange, to win support as leaders, and to try for a place in history.
Both Clinton and Yeltsin will be attempting to navigate through this maze of risks and rewards at Helsinki. Past experience with summits suggests that each man and the country he represents will suffer from some of the former and reap some of the latter.
But this same experience also suggests that no one, participant or observer, will be able to say with certainty this week just what the balance between the two was at the Helsinki summit.