The Elusive Reagan-Gorbachev Summit Standard

There is a crucial difference between Sunnylands and US-USSR summits: China and the US are in constant contact.

An old parable about miscommunication runs as follows; two men sit on a train, facing one another.  A second train passes by, spewing black smoke through the window of the first. One man’s face is left dirty, the other’s clean. The clean man gets up to wash his face, while the dirty man remains in his seat.  Why?  Because the clean man sees the dirty, and assumes that his face is also dirty; the dirty man sees the clean, and assumes that he is also clean.

The parable suggests the dangers of assumption and “mirror-imaging.” But of course the story only makes sense if the two men don’t talk, and don’t develop a sense of community around their mutual misfortune.  This is an altogether odd assumption; why wouldn’t the one commiserate with the other, if only briefly? 

Yet interrogating this assumption might help us understand the differences between the recent Obama-Xi summit and the great Cold War summit meetings of yore. The United States and the USSR were, in many ways, not unlike the two men on the train who could barely speak with one another. By comparison, China and the United States are engaged in what amounts to constant chatter, alternatively pleasant or hostile but at all times communicative. This accounts not only for different expectations about what the summits might accomplish, but also for the different ways in which the summits are perceived.

Early indications suggest that last week’s Sunnylands summit will have few lasting impacts on US-China relations; beyond a couple of minor embarrassments, the summit appears to have neither created any breakthroughs nor been marred by any significant gaffes. In the United States, national security leaks largely overwhelmed interest in the summit, overshadowing genuine concerns about cyber-conflict between China and the U.S.

This is a far cry from the great summit meetings of the 1980s, when every interaction between the U.S. president and the Soviet premier was covered in exhaustive detail. Of the many differences between the China-U.S. and U.S.-Soviet relationships, perhaps the greatest is that the former involves nearly constant interaction across a great variety of commercial, social, and political fields, while in the latter the moments of confrontation and dialogue were concentrated, sharp, and newsworthy.

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One implication of this difference is that the summits between the U.S. and the USSR represented critical opportunities for shaping the superpower relationship in consequential ways, if only within the confines dictated by ideology and power. These were the only moments in which, so to speak, the two men on the train could communicate clearly. By contrast, the Obama-Xi summit was a more managerial affair, in which the two leaders essentially shared information on the performance of their respective outreach teams.

A related implication, as many others have suggested, is that a final answer to how the Washington-Beijing relationship will develop over the next decade is beyond the scope of any summit meeting.  The Sunnylands summit can’t stop U.S.-China rivalry, or create enduring “trust,” however one might define that term. What the summit can do is create reasonable expectations, for a time, on the margins, and point the way to managing some of the most dangerous manifestations of disputes.  Management, of course, is a process. If we redefine trust as “reasonable expectations about the behavior of others,” and perhaps “reasonable confidence in the decision-making procedures of the partner,” then some degree of trust is surely achievable in the Sino-US relationship, just as it was in the Sino-Soviet and US-Soviet relationships. Moreover, with states as large and powerful as the United States and China, the margins matter.  Perhaps more to the point, no one lives forever.