What really goes on between world leaders at summits? Sir Christopher Meyer, former press secretary to John Major and later ambassador to Washington, told us in How to Succeed at Summits (Sundays, repeated Wednesdays), an entertaining two-part series on Radio Four. Meyer told us that, for example, when President Bush made a jokey reference to Tony Blair using Colgate toothpaste at Camp David, assembled journalists wondered how on earth he knew: did they share a bathroom? In fact, Meyer knew that all the bathrooms there were supplied with this particular brand because he was part of the entourage. Summits remain a secret world because quite often two world leaders will meet in private without their officials present, and only an interpreter, if one is needed, will witness it.
Meyer has amused us before. Last year he published his very readable and well-written memoirs of his period in Washington, and the political class hypocritically attacked him for being indiscreet. In reality he just revealed some of their flaws, and although we knew before that John Prescott was an imbecile it was great fun to see the evidence. As it happens, I first met Meyer some years ago when he was head of the news department at the Foreign Office and I was on the diplomatic beat. Unlike some other incumbents of that post, he had a quick, waspish sense of humour and sometimes gave me the impression, perhaps falsely, that he would rather be somewhere else. Unlike some, he appeared to like journalists, though once in a private briefing he solemnly assured me, keeping a straight face, that the Foreign Office wasn’t anti-Israel when I knew it was. On the whole he was an attractive figure.
In this series he talked to other officials about the face-to-face meetings with leaders. Brent Scowcroft, a former adviser to several American presidents, revealed that the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kept a toy cannon on his table with caps and he periodically fired it. At other meetings he had a cigarette case with a timer on it which would open every 30 minutes so that he could smoke. He was trying to limit his smoking but every so often, unable to wait any longer, he would attempt to break the lock. Meyer remembered that box from a 1975 Harold Wilson summit.
As Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, explained, the bureaucracy gives the politician a list of topics and then sits in to take notes. Meyer observed that some leaders can’t do without cue cards. Ronald Reagan used his like a film script. Sir John, now Lord, Kerr, a former ambassador to Washington, said that Margaret Thatcher would reply to Reagan’s cue cards with ten-minute point-by-point explanations that more or less told him that everything he said was totally wrong — and he loved it. It was, Kerr added, as if Reagan was watching a great Hollywood performance; he would nudge whoever was sitting nearest, a gesture that meant, ‘Gosh, she’s good.’ He would take anything from her.
This, thought Meyer, demonstrated that once the personal rapport and trust were there, a leader could deliver tough messages without damaging the relationship. Sir Bernard Ingham, Mrs Thatcher’s former press secretary, recalled that when Reagan risked giving up nuclear weapons during his Reykjavik summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, she was appalled. Doesn’t he know you can’t disinvent nuclear weapons, she raged. They had to go to Washington on what was described by one of his Foreign Office colleagues as ‘a mission to wash his head’. Not much more was heard about getting rid of the weapons.
Reagan’s last chief of staff Ken Duberstein recalled that the president came to depend on Mrs Thatcher because he knew she had his best interests and those of democracy at heart. She also forged a great relationship with Gorbachev. Ingham said she made it clear from the start that she hated the system he stood for: ‘Boy! Did they get on.’ The secret was that they were very similar: both liked arguing and could give and take hard knocks without the slightest offence, and he knew that she wouldn’t play him false. Meyer had even seen Gorbachev blush in her presence. President Mitterrand charmed her and treated her as the most important person in the room. Despite the fact that he was French and a socialist, she responded very well.
Albright and Robin Cook got on well in the informal, relaxed surroundings of Chevening, the foreign secretary’s country home in Kent. Jacques Delors, the former Brussels Commission president, was awed at an Edinburgh summit by being given the room at Holyrood that was the scene of the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots’s lover Darnley. John Major it seems was a brilliant negotiator, while Blair is a better behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealer.
Meyer’s conclusion: you need good preparation, clarity of purpose, and the ability to build relationships and put yourself in the shoes of others. Above all, you need to remember the national interest.