President Trump left his summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam on Thursday without any deal to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. “Sometimes you have to walk,” Mr. Trump said, explaining that the two leaders were unable to reach any agreement.
But Mr. Trump is far from the first U.S. president to leave a high-stakes international meeting empty handed. Here are three other major talks that ended in failure:
Eisenhower’s Paris summit with the Soviets
Just before President Dwight D. Eisenhower was set to meet with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in for a four-power Paris summit between the U.S., France, Britain and the Soviet Union, an American U-2 spy plane was shot down by the Soviets on May 1, 1960. The Soviets were able to recover the plane and took the pilot prisoner in a major embarrassment for the U.S., which believed its Cold War rival didn’t possess missiles capable of taking down a U-2.
Khrushchev used the revelation that the U.S. had been spying in the region for some time to his advantage, forcing Eisenhower to say that he had approved the flights in the hopes to avoid “another Pearl Harbor.” The Soviets also imprisoned the American pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who admitted that he had been on a spy mission despite initial U.S. denials.
Khrushchev entered the talks still enraged by the controversy, and insisted Eisenhower apologize for initiating the U-2 flight program and punish those involved in any espionage. The summit came to an abrupt end on May 16, 1960 when Eisenhower refused to apologize for the U-2 flights and Khrushchev refused to meet with the president.
Reagan’s Reykjavik summit
Similar to Mr. Trump’s first summit with Kim, the first meeting in Geneva between Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev laid the groundwork for a future summit in Reykjavik, Iceland in October of 1986. The leaders had exchanged letters back and forth throughout the year prior, making it seem that efforts toward abolishing nuclear weapons were a real possibility.
“There were a number of things that thad been discussed and left open in Geneva, such as INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces), the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty, space arms and nuclear testing. The U.S. side was especially interested in strategic arms proposals for the U.S. negotiators in Geneva. Both the U.S. and USSR would like to see a world without nuclear missiles. This was a very important issue, and the world was interested in the possibility of achieving this,” an official U.S. memorandum of conversation of the talks provided by the Atomic Heritage Foundation reads.
Both countries appeared to be on the brink of an historic agreement to curb or even eliminate their ballistic missile stockpiles, but the talks fell apart when Reagan would not give up his goal of developing a nuclear defensive shield commonly referred to as “Star Wars.” Gorbachev had pressed Reagan on limiting development of the planned Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, which could have allowed the U.S. to shoot down Soviet missiles for space.
According to the transcript, “If they could agree to ban research in space,” Gorbachev would sign a treaty drastically reducing the Soviet nuclear arsenal in “two minutes.” The summit ended the next day without a firm agreement in hand and leaving both leaders feeling bitter toward one another.
Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultzthat the president was mad as he left the summit, but that the two sides had still made major strides. “They had seen the president’s resolve, but we had seen their bottom line,” said Shultz. “We knew they were ready to cut strategic arms in half.”
While both leaders were disappointed by the lack of an agreement at the end of the meeting, Reykjavik set the stage for future talks. During the following year’s Washington Summit, the two sides agreed to ban Intermediate Range Nuclear Missiles and reduce other strategic nuclear weapons, winding down the Cold War in the final years before the Soviet collapse.
Clinton’s Israeli-Palestinian Camp David summit
President Bill Clinton brought together Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat for intense rounds of negotiations at Camp David from July 11 to July 24, 2000 in the hopes of finally ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
By July 25, 2000, Clinton announced that the summit had failed in brokering an agreement between the Middle Eastern nations. Barak returned to Israel blaming Arafat for the failure, saying “we did not succeed because we did not find a partner prepared to make decisions on all issues. We did not succeed because our Palestinian neighbors have not yet internalized the fact that in order to achieve peace, each side has to give up some of their dreams; to give, not only to demand.”
The Palestinian leadership, meanwhile, declared the summit a failure due to a lack of preparation by the U.S., personality clashes between Barak and Arafat, and Israel’s negotiation tactics.
“Israelis and Palestinians are destined to live side by side, destined to have a common future. They have to decide what kind of future it will be. Though the differences that remain are deep, they have come a long way in the last seven years, and, notwithstanding the failure to reach an agreement, they made real headway in the last two weeks,” Clinton said at the close of the summit.
According to a trilateral statement on the summit released by the United Nations, while the three leaders were “not able to bridge the gaps and reach an agreement, their negotiations were unprecedented in both scope and detail.”
At the close of the summit, both Israel and Palestine agreed to open-ended commitments, including a promise to “continue their efforts to conclude an agreement on all permanent status issues as soon as possible.”
To this day, the Middle East peace process is still a puzzle that has been left unsolved. Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been spearheading the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan, which has not yet been revealed. According to the Associated Press, Kushner has said he plans to release details of the plan sometime after Israel’s April 9th election.
Kushner has said his plan will address all “final status” issues, including borders, and require compromises by all sides. The plan apparently makes no mention of the creation of a separate Palestinian state but would focus heavily on offering economic “opportunities” to the Palestinian people.
What history can teach Trump
While the latest stab at talks with North Korea appear to have fizzled out, William Hitchcock, a history professor at the University of Virginia, says if past presidents’ efforts of summit diplomacy have shown us anything, it’s that real diplomacy requires “years of patient behind-the-scenes work” and that nations’ “tangled problems” can’t be solved with a simple handshake and the stroke of a pen.
“President Trump wanted a quick solution to a complex problem: you give up nukes, we lift sanctions. But North Korea has learned that possessing nuclear weapons gives them immense prestige and leverage in the world so they’re unlikely to give them up. What’s needed is a long term framework to manage nuclear weapons, and that needs to be worked out over years, not at a single meeting,” said Hitchcock.
He suggested that despite Mr. Trump’s failure to deliver a concrete deal this time around, the meeting was still “very important.”
“Eisenhower, Reagan and Clinton all endured disappointments at summits but their efforts were part of managing complex and dangerous relationships. Signaling a willingness to talk is vitally important even if the final deal is elusive. Trump should be given credit for breaking the ice.”