Summitry has been a staple of American diplomacy since at least the Second World War. In 1943 Franklin Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Tehran. In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Yalta. And in 1945 Harry Truman met with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Potsdam. Since then every American president has sat face to face with a wide range of presidents and prime ministers – always from a position of unrivaled strength. Such summits in which American presidents have engaged for the past 75 years, have been with them having the advantage, the strong advantage, in every aspect. Military, economic, political, strategic, tactical – and personal.
Tomorrow’s summit at Mar-a-Lago between U.S. President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping will, then, be a radical departure from past practice. For the first time in nearly a century, America’s leader will be dwarfed by his foreign counterpart. On the one hand is Trump, who is personally and politically weak and has never been personally and politically weaker. On the other hand, is Xi Jinping, who is personally and politically strong and has never been personally and politically stronger. It’s not a fair fight. America’s leader is hobbled both by his miserable standing at home, and by his woeful lack of a solid foreign policy apparatus. China’s leader is heightened both by his strong standing at home, and by his experienced, strategic approach to foreign affairs. This means that whatever does emerge from this summit will be in consequence of what Xi Jinping wanted, not of what Trump negotiated.
Woe to those who remember when the United States of America strode the earth like Shakespeare’s Colossus….