The Conversation

Ukraine is the hot topic at the NATO summit – the most important work is all in the details happening behind the scenes

A summit is literally the highest point on the mountain. In diplomatic terms, summits like the NATO meeting, held on July 11 and 12, 2023, in Vilnius, Lithuania, mark important gatherings of world leaders.

The question of Sweden’s and Ukraine’s joining NATO, which is a political and military alliance of 31 countries from Europe and North America, was a central topic heading into this year’s summit. While Sweden is now set to join the alliance, there is no firm timeline for when countries will determine whether Ukraine is admitted.

Having worked on and attended summits as a diplomat in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, I know how much energy goes into planning the public and private diplomatic moments of these events.

NATO is convening this meeting as part of its regular work on major military and political concerns among its member countries. But make no mistake – the United States sees itself as pivotal in this summit.

For President Joe Biden, the meeting is a test of his personal commitment to help Ukraine win the battle against Russia. The U.S. has been leading a coalition of countries helping Ukraine with military and humanitarian aid. Biden has promised that the U.S. will help Ukraine “as long as it takes.”

History of summits

Political leaders perfected the art of modern diplomacy in routine face-to-face summits during the darkest days of the Cold War.

Winston Churchill, at the time the U.K. prime minister, helped form the concept of a political “summit” in 1950, when he suggested a “parley at the summit.” That meant that the U.K., United States and the Soviet Union should sit down and figure out who had which sphere of influence after World War II ended.

But the history of summits stretches further back in time.

Another British politician, Lloyd George, first pushed for in-person political meetings in the early 1900s, stating, “If you want to settle a thing, you see your opponent and talk it over with him. The last thing to do is write him a letter.”

And it was the Greeks who first elevated the idea of leaders talking to leaders and debating issues as a form of building trust.

Since the Cold War, summits have taken many different shapes and sizes, ranging from regional to international meetings.

While some of these meetings result in few tangible outcomes, others have helped pave the way for key policy changes, including nuclear arms reductions in the 1980s and a treaty to limit the rise in global temperatures in 2015.

From an American perspective, summits are key moments when leadership is on display.

U.S. presidents have hosted summits on everything from democracy to trade since the Cold War. And NATO summits have taken place almost every year since the alliance’s founding in 1949.

But there is a particular level of pressure and anticipation surrounding this meeting, with an active war in Europe caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Backstage details

These mega-events require massive planning. Member countries can volunteer to host the summits, and the offers are evaluated and decided upon by the political branch of NATO.

From the logistical advance teams that prepare the groundwork for presidential travel to the protocol officers ensuring that handshakes or hugs are timed for photography, every detail matters both publicly and privately at these sorts of affairs.


Tara Sonenshine, Tufts University

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