by Conrad Black
Last week’s G-7 meeting in Cornwall reminded us of how the whole concept of summit meetings has been trivialized.
The first such meeting in modern times of more than two leaders of Great Powers was the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and 1815, where the leading personalities were the host, Metternich, the “Coachman of Europe,” the ineffably devious French Foreign Minister Talleyrand, Viscount Castlereagh and the Duke of Wellington for Great Britain, ushering in the Pax Britannica, and the representative of the Holy See Ercole Cardinal Consalvi.
These were exalted and epochal figures; they ostensibly produced the Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia, Austria, France, and Great Britain, which was determined to maintain all governments in Europe in place and suppressed revolutions, whatever their causes and wherever they occurred in Europe.
This was too reactionary and interventionist a regime for Britain, and apart from suppressing a comparatively liberal government in Spain in 1823, the Holy Alliance never functioned and its members did not repose the slightest trust in each other, for good reason.
The great powers of Europe did not meet again for 63 years until the Congress of Berlin in 1878 where the leading personalities were the host, the German Chancellor, Bismarck, the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Benjamin Disraeli and the Marquess of Salisbury, and the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister Count Andrassy.
Disraeli succeeded in blocking a Russian advance in the Balkans and as a bonus Britain was awarded colonial suzerainty over the island of Cyprus. The real significance of the occasion was a recognition of the great power and influence of Germany.
Bismarck had just succeeded in uniting Prussia with Bavaria, the Rhineland, and other German-speaking jurisdictions except Austria and what emerged, the German Empire, was the greatest power in Europe industrially and militarily.
At the Congress, Germany and Britain effectively collaborated to restrain Russia from the fruits of its gains in its recent war with the Ottoman Empire, the last victorious war Russia would enjoy until 1945.
Except for Austria-Hungary, all of the eastern and southern countries of Europe felt shortchanged and aggrieved, and many of these issues rose again in subsequent Balkan wars and in World War I. It was a success for Disraeli who famously declared on his return that “peace with honor, peace in our time,” had been achieved. This was a reasonable claim that should not have been repeated by Neville Chamberlain when he returned from Munich in 1938.
The next such gathering would be at Paris and Versailles in 1918-1919. This followed the First World War, and the chief victorious powers were France, Great Britain, the United States, Italy, and Japan.
Austria-Hungary had collapsed, those two countries were separated, and the new countries of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were largely carved out of the old Habsburg Empire. The Hohenzollern dynasty in Germany, the Romanovs in Russia, and the Ottomans in Turkey all collapsed as well, and defeated Germany and the Bolshevik pariah of the new Soviet Union were not invited.
The League of Nations was established but eventually the United States declined to join it, and France wished a far more severe peace for Germany, having endured the stupefying total of nearly 6 million casualties in a population of 40 million in the late war.
Iraq and Syria were also created out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, but these countries have not proved more durable than Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia. This conference, where the leading figures were Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Woodrow Wilson, was effectively a fiasco, and 19 years later was the next multi-power summit meeting, at Munich.
This was the notorious meeting of Hitler, Chamberlain, Mussolini, and Daladier, which delivered the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany and invited the further dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and in March 1939 Hitler seized Bohemia, the Czech half of the country. The conference was a notorious failure. (When the French leader, Daladier, returned to Paris and saw the crowds applauding at the airfield, he said to an aide; “The bloody fools.”)
Somewhat more successful were the big three conferences in contemplation of Allied victory in World War II: Teheran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945, between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, and Potsdam in July 1945 between Clement Attlee, Harry Truman, and Stalin. It was agreed that all liberated countries would have completely free elections as soon as possible to choose their governments, while a commission was established that would determine the occupation zones in Germany.
The Western allies held the promised free elections in France, Italy, Benelux, Denmark, and Norway and ultimately West Germany, but no such election occurred in the East until the collapse of the Soviet Union 45 years later. Yalta has been disparaged but Churchill and Roosevelt gained the agreement of Stalin on every point that they wished, and as historian Ted Morgan remarked: ”If it had been a bad deal for the West Stalin would not have reneged on every paragraph of it.”
The last multi-power summit conference of this kind was at Geneva in 1955 where President Eisenhower proposed his Open Skies plan for reciprocal aerial reconnaissance, (accepted 35 years later). The post-Stalin Soviet delegation consisted of representatives of all of the contending factions in his succession and the French and British leaders, Edgar Faure and Anthony Eden, who for different reasons did not long remain in their positions.
Bilateral U.S.-Soviet meetings succeeded these larger conferences, apart from the Paris meeting in 1960 between de Gaulle, Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and Macmillan, which ended rancorously after two days because of the U-2 reconnaissance overflight of the USSR, which Eisenhower unwisely represented as a meteorological exploration.
Even before the end of the Cold War, the leaders of the world had fallen victim to an addiction to meeting over-frequently and in excessive numbers: the G-7, G-20, Quad, BRIC, the U.N. general assembly; they are always meeting.
These meetings used to be between substantial leaders to discuss important subjects. This past weekend’s G-7 meeting produced the usual ludicrous photo-ops, elbow-bumping posturing, anodyne joint statements that are pastiches of inconsequential platitudes, and the inevitable torrent of gratitude that America “is back.”
What that means in practice is that all decision-making is now collegial and the United States will not move a destroyer without the avuncular agreement of its so-called allies. We are already reverting to the time when the West was immobilized by a regime in which nothing can be done unless virtually all of the members agree to it, and the United States consents to be treated as having a voice in the councils of the world equal to Montenegro’s.
The agreement to a 15 percent world minimum business tax may sound like healthy tax harmonization, but it concedes a vast field of taxation of American companies by foreign governments that they did not possess before. It also announced a multinational campaign against jurisdictions of modest tax levels in order to reduce the penalty of over-taxing countries.
The United States received a hallelujah chorus, apart from Japan, for its intense, plodding, credulous, pursuit of the new green paradise, a regime of economic self-torment and of aphrodisiacal pleasure to the Chinese who consider the issue to be nonsense.
For the American media, it was the long-awaited occasion to pretend that Joe Biden is an international conferencier who may be worthily compared in his diplomatic suavity with all those whom he succeeds: Talleyrand, Metternich, Bismarck, Disraeli, Clemenceau, Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and de Gaulle, to mention only a few.
This circuit is going to be very tiresome; these people should go back to meeting every twenty or thirty years with a proper agenda, and stop gamboling friskily for the cameras when there is a great deal of necessary work at home that is not being done. Chipper talk in grand settings is no substitute for governing.
First published in the Epoch Times.