Summitry as intercultural communication



    1. Professor of International History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge.
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      This article is an extended version of the 2008 Martin Wight Lecture, delivered at the University of Sussex on 20 Nov. 2008.


Summitry is regularly in the news, most recently because of the G20 meeting in Washington DC in November 2008. This article explores the sometimes neglected cultural dimensions of summitry, drawing on recent work by cultural international historians and by theorists of intercultural communication, much of which addresses western relations with Asia. This article, however, argues that all international summitry is an intercultural act. Three historical case-studies are explored: Chamberlain and Hitler in 1938, Kennedy and Khrushchev in 1961 and Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985. In each case, cultural perceptions and expectations played a significant part in the outcome of the summit. The article also comments on the role of translation in international summitry.


  • 1

    Martin Wight, Systems of states, ed. Hedley Bull (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1977), p. 32.

  • 2

    David Reynolds, Summits: six meetings that shaped the twentieth century (London: Penguin, 2007), p. 3. This volume provides more detailed material on the subject of the present article.

  • 3

    The principal exception is David H. Dunn, ed., Diplomacy at the highest level: the evolution of international summitry (London: Macmillan, 1996), but these essays concentrate on recent summitry. Keith Eubank, The summit conferences, 1919–1960 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), was a brief historical survey written before any archives were open. G. R. Berridge's standard textbook Diplomacy: theory and practice (3rd edn: Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005) contains a brief account and analysis of summitry in ch. 10. Henry Kissinger's classic, Diplomacy (New York: Touchstone, 1994), refers briefly to several of these meetings, but it is interesting that ‘summits’ and ‘summitry’ do not appear as conceptual entries in the book's index. There is a succinct essay on Cold War summitry by the former West German diplomat Wilhelm G. Grewe, Die amerikanisch—sowjetischen Gipfeltreffen seit Roosevelt und Stalin (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1987).

  • 4

    I have discussed these issues more fully in my chapter ‘Culture, discourse and policy: reflections on the new international history’ in David Reynolds, From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt and the international history of the 1940s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 331–51. See also the stimulating essays in Jessica C. E. Gienow-Hecht and Frank Schumacher, eds, Culture and international history (Oxford: Berghahn, 2003), and Patrick Finney, ed., Palgrave advances in international history (London: Palgrave, 2005).

  • 5

    Arthur Marwick, The nature of history (London: Macmillan, 1970), p. 93.

  • 6

    Andrew J. Rotter, ‘Saidism without Said: Orientalism and US diplomatic history’, American Historical Review 105: 4, Oct. 2000, pp. 120517; Douglas Little, American Orientalism: the United States and the Middle East since 1945 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Patrick Finney, ‘Raising Frankenstein: Great Britain, “Balkanism” and the search for a Balkan Locarno in the 1920s’, European History Quarterly 33: 3, July 2003, pp. 31742.

  • 7

    John Dower, War without mercy: race and power in the Pacific War (London: Faber, 1986). See also Christopher Thorne, The Far Eastern war: states and societies, 1941–1945 (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1986); Ben-Ami Shillony, Politics and culture in wartime Japan (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981).

  • 8

    Linda Colley, ‘Britishness and otherness: an argument’, Journal of British Studies 31: 4, Oct. 1992, pp. 30929; David Campbell, Writing security: United States foreign policy and the politics of identity (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992). See also Ragnhild Fiebig-von Hase and Ursula Lehmkuhl, eds, Enemy images in American history (Oxford: Berghahn, 1997).

  • 9

    One textbook defines intercultural communication as ‘communication between people whose cultural perceptions and symbol systems are distinct enough to alter the communication event’: Larry A. Samovar and Richard E. Porter, Communication between cultures, 2nd edn (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1995), p. 58.

  • 10

    Raymond Cohen, Negotiating across cultures: international communication in an interdependent world (Washington DC: US Institute of Peace, 1991), esp. ch. 3.

  • 11

    See e.g. Peter Berton, Hiroshi Kimura and I. William Zartman, eds, International negotiation: actors, structure/processes, values (London: Macmillan, 1999); Hannah Slavik, ed., International communication and diplomacy (Malta: Diplo Foundation, 2004); Wilfried Bolewski, ‘Diplomatic processes and cultural variations: the relevance of culture in diplomacy’, Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations 8:1, Winter/Spring 2008, pp. 14560.

  • 12

    The word ‘lunatic’ is used in Neville Chamberlain to Ida Chamberlain, 11 Sept. 1938, NC 18/1/1068 (Chamberlain papers, Birmingham University Library).

  • 13

    Neville to Ida, 19 Sept. 1938, NC 18/11/1069. The ‘dog’ reference is recorded in Sir Thomas Inskip's diary notes, 17 Sept. 1938, INKP 1 (Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge). See also Lord Birkenhead, Halifax: the life of Lord Halifax (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1965), p. 368.

  • 14

    Cabinet minutes, Cab 38 (38), 17 Sept. 1938, in CAB 23/95, fo. 72 (National Archives, Kew, Surrey).

  • 15

    Cabinet minutes, Cab 42 (38), 24 Sept. 1938, CAB 23/95, fo. 179.

  • 16

    John F. Kennedy, The strategy of peace, ed. Allan Nevins (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), pp. 10–12.

  • 17

    This summary follows the transcript in US Department of State, Foreign relations of the United States, 1961–3 (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1998), vol. 5, docs 83–5.

  • 18

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr, papers, box W-3: Berlin notes (John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts).

  • 19

    Charles E. Bohlen, ‘Line of approach to Khrushchev’, 1 June 1961, Foreign relations of the United States, 1961–3, vol. 5, doc. 80, p. 165.

  • 20

    Llewellyn Thompson, oral history, 27 April 1966, p. 36 (John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, Massachusetts).

  • 21

    Oleg Troyanovsky, ‘Making of Soviet foreign policy’, in William Taubman, Sergei Khrushchev and Abbott Gleason, eds, Nikita Khrushchev (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), ch. 9 at p. 231.

  • 22

    For argument and quotations see William Taubman, Khrushchev: the man and his era (New York: Norton, 2003), esp. pp. 506, 541, 583. On nuclear arsenals see Steven Zaloga, Target America: the Soviet Union and the strategic arms race, 1945–1964 (Novato, CA: Diane, 1993), p. 213.

  • 23

    Michael R. Beschloss, The crisis years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960–1963 (New York: Edward Burlinghame, 1991), p. 225.

  • 24

    David Halberstam, The best and the brightest (New York: Fawcett Crest, 1972), pp. 96–7. Reston later told a similar story, in somewhat different words, to biographer Richard Reeves: see Reeves, President Kennedy: profile of power (New York: Touchstone, 1994), pp. 172–3.

  • 25

    David Kaiser, American tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the origins of the Vietnam War (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2000), pp. 101–2.

  • 26

    Gorbachev interview, 3 Oct. 1995, quoted in Edmund Morris, Dutch: a memoir of Ronald Reagan (New York: Modern Library, 1999), p. 563.

  • 27

    Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (London: Doubleday, 1996), pp. 405–6.

  • 28

    Morris, Dutch, pp. 568–9, 823. Gorbachev's post-summit comments are noted in the diary of Anatoly S. Chernyaev, 24 Nov. 1985, translation available on the National Security Archive website ‘To the Geneva summit’ at, accessed 4 Dec. 2008.

  • 29

    The story is told, for instance, in Martin Anderson, Revolution: the Reagan legacy, 2nd edn (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1990), pp. 80–3.

  • 30

    Speech of 8 March 1983: see Robert Lettow, Ronald Reagan and his quest to abolish nuclear weapons (New York: Random House, 2005), pp. 35, 133.

  • 31

    James T. Patterson, Restless giant: the United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 160.

  • 32

    The titles of two biographies. See Bob Schieffer and Gary Paul Gates, The acting president (New York: Dutton, 1989); Lou Cannon, President Reagan: the role of a lifetime (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991).

  • 33

    Even when Alzheimer's disease clouded his memory in the final years, Reagan kept coming back to that story: see Morris, Dutch, p. 667; Michael Deaver, A different drummer: my thirty years with Ronald Reagan (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 2001), pp. 21–2.

  • 34

    Don Oberdorfer, From the Cold War to a new era: the United States and the Soviet Union, 1983–91, 2nd edn (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. 22; William Wohlforth, ed., Witnesses to the end of the Cold War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), p. 46.

  • 35

    Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, Instructions from the Centre: top secret files on KGB operations, 1975–1985 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1991), ch. 4; and Vladimir E. Shlapentokh, ‘Moscow's war propaganda and Soviet public opinion’, Problems of Communism 33: 5, Sept.Oct. 1984, pp. 8894.

  • 36

    Diary entry quoted in Ronald Reagan, An American life (New York: Pocket Books, 1992), p. 585. The impact of these events in late 1983 on the President's policies is highlighted by Beth A. Fischer, The Reagan reversal: foreign policy and the end of the Cold War (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997), ch. 5.

  • 37

    Reagan, address on US—Soviet relations, 16 Jan. 1984, The American Presidency Project website,, accessed 4 Dec. 2008.

  • 38

    New York Times, 26 Sept. 1985, p. B8. See also Massie's website at, accessed 4 Dec. 2008; and National Security Council Coordination Office files on meetings with Suzanne Massie, in boxes 90876, 90912, 91210, 91948, 91962 and 91968 (Ronald Reagan Library, Simi Valley, California).

  • 39

    For background see Archie Brown, ‘The change to engagement in Britain's Cold War policy: the origins of the Thatcher—Gorbachev relationship’, Journal of Cold War Studies 10: 3, Summer 2008, pp. 347, quoting from p. 33.

  • 40

    Reagan—Thatcher meeting, 22 Dec. 1984, memcon, NSC European and Soviet Affairs Directorate: Thatcher Visit, Dec. 1984 [1], box 90902 (Ronald Reagan Library).

  • 41

    For background see Igor Korchilov, Translating history: the summits that ended the Cold War as witnessed by Gorbachev's interpreter (London: Aurum, 1997), pp. 21–2, 48; Pavel Palazchenko, My years with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze: the memoir of a Soviet interpreter (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), pp.

  • 42

    George P. Shultz, Turmoil and triumph: my years as Secretary of State (New York: Scribner's, 1993), pp. 573–4, 587; for Taransenko, see Wohlforth, Witnesses to the end of the Cold War, p. 19.