Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, 5th ed.  –  Online updating pages

Chapter 12: Summits

p. 186, dangers of summitry: Incidents attending the arrival of President Obama at the G20 meeting in China in September 2016, especially the absence of a red carpet welcome, illustrate very well the manner in which poorly handled protocol arrangements can cause tensions between states. What is believed to be an insult to a head of state becomes a ‘national insult’ to a degree unlikely to be reached by an insult to a diplomat. Were someone with the temperament of Donald Trump to be the US president involved in this sort of affair, the consequences would be only too predictable. In fact, Trump immediately announced that, had he been shown such ‘disrespect’, he would have had the doors of Air Force One closed and ordered its return home. President Obama, of course, handled the matter perfectly.

p. 186, Trump’s personal encounters with President Putin have, of course, presented a master class in how not to conduct summitry. The article by Greg Miller in the Washington Post, 13 January 2019 (see below) sums it all up – and was largely anticipated by the very sharp and succinct piece by Haass (see below).

The suspicion and alarm caused by the extreme lengths to which Donald Trump, the devil’s gift to diplomacy, has gone to conceal what transpired at his meetings with Putin has also focused unwanted attention on the role of the interpreters, who are customarily unobtrusive and professionally sworn to confidentiality. There were even calls for the State Department’s Marina Gross, Trump’s interpreter at the Helsinki summit in July 2018 and the only other American present at his lengthy one-on-one encounter with Putin on that occasion, to be subpoenaed in order to reveal all to Congress. For good reasons, this idea was eventually dropped but discussion of it highlighted the perennial problem of how to record what is said – and especially what is agreed – at ‘private’ summit encounters in order to avoid the risk of later misunderstanding and enable officials to follow up the talks. Best practice is for each party to have an official note-taker; it should certainly not be part of the responsibility of interpreters to write a report on a meeting at which they have been working. Nevertheless, if only an interpreter is present, the task inevitably falls on them, and an experienced one is in a good position to undertake it – if so required. This emerges clearly from a rare memoir written by an interpreter present at a great many summit encounters. The case in point is Dr Paul Schmidt, the senior German foreign ministry interpreter who had interpreted and translated for many German chancellors and foreign ministers during the 1920s and early 1930s before being called on to assist Hitler as well as his own foreign minister, Ribbentrop. In Hitler’s Interpreter (see below), Schmidt insists that interpreters are in a strong position to understand what has transpired at a summit meeting (i) because to be able to do the job well, they must already have a firm grasp of the issues likely to come up, as well as the technical language peculiar to them; (ii) because it is a natural tendency for individuals often to address their remarks to the person they know can understand them, namely the interpreter, rather than their counterpart; and (iii) because interpreters cannot for a moment allow their concentration to lapse, the better to add nuance to their words. It is worth adding that a highly regarded diplomatic interpreter such as Schmidt, who was well-known at the League of Nations well before Hitler came to power, was able to add to his contextual knowledge by falling into conversation with foreign statesmen – some of whom were old acquaintances – in the wings of summit meetings. At Hitler’s request, Schmidt wrote many reports on his summit discussions. He might have been unusual in the degree of reliance placed on him but I doubt that he is a unique figure among high-level diplomatic interpreters.

p. 188, serial summits: the editors of a recently published collection of 2012 conference papers (who in their brief discussion of that awful word ‘governance’ are noticeably innocent of English School thinking about the role of the ‘great powers’ in the states-system) prefer the dull term ‘regular summits’ (see Mourlon-Druol and Romero in Further reading below)

p. 194, sherpas: The presence of ‘sherpas’ in summitry has led the senior editors of a recently launched journal (Global Summitry) to ‘propose’ the ‘iceberg theory’ of this diplomatic institution, as if the value of the sherpas’ work is a recent suggestion that needs testing. And talk about mixing metaphors. The ‘iceberg theory’ conjures up the image of the way being prepared for mountaineers in the Himalayas by Nepalese sherpas dressed as frogmen!

Further reading: additions and links

For recent funeral summits (aka ‘working funerals’), search key words ‘funeral>world>leaders’

BBC News, ‘US-China diplomacy: Spy agency tweet adds to protocol spat’, 4 September 2016

Cochrane, Emily, ‘Who Heard What Trump Said to Putin? Only One Other American’, New York Times, 19 July 2018

Frum, David, ‘Subpoena the interpreter’, The Atlantic, 14 January 2019

Global Summitry This is a new journal from OUP. It should be worth a look, despite the rather vacuous, meandering ‘working definition’ of ‘global summitry’ with which it has been launched.

Guardian, ‘Xi Jinping holds all the cards ahead of Mar-a-Lago meeting with Trump’, 5 April 2017

Haass, Richard N., ‘Summing Up the Trump Summits’, 25 July 2018, Council on Foreign Relations

Martinez, Luis, ‘Who is interpreter Marina Gross and will her notes of Trump’s Putin meeting be useful?’ ABC News, 20 January 2019

Miller, Greg, ‘Trump has concealed details of his face-to-face encounters with Putin from senior officials in administration’, Washington Post, 13 January 2013

Mourlon-Druol, E. and F. Romero (eds), International Summitry and Global Governance: The rise of the G7 and the European Council, 1974-1991 (Routledge). [The Introduction to this collection of essays can be read in the preview on the publisher’s website, where the additional references in the footnotes might prove useful.]

New York Times, ‘Obama plays down confrontation with China over his plane’s stairs’, 5 September 2016

Nuclear Security Summit

Obst, Harry, White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation (AuthorHouse, 2010)

Reynolds, David, ‘Summit Diplomacy: Some lessons from history for 21st century leaders’, 4 June 2013 [transcript of lecture]

Rosado Professional Solutions, ‘Diplomatic Interpreting: Misunderstood and little known’, 18 July 2018

Suhasini, Haidar, ‘Limits of summit-style diplomacy’, The Hindu, 27 September 2014

Schmidt, Paul, Hitler’s Interpreter, ed. R. H. C. Steed (Heinemann: London, 1950)

Schmidt, Paul, Hitler’s Interpreter, with an introduction and notes by Alan Sutton (Fonthill, 2016)

Tarrosy, Istvan, ‘A U.S.-China summit diplomacy rivalry’, The Diplomat, 21 February 2014

The Telegraph, ‘Donald Trump says he would have left G20 summit in China over Barack Obama’s Air Force One plane “snub”’, 5 September 2016

Time, ‘7 Things you might have missed at China’s G20 Summit’, 6 September 2016