Cold war lessons for Xi and Obama on how to build trust

Benjamin Zala recalls the 'fireside' chat that started a US-Soviet engagement, and urges the Chinese and US leaders to demonstrate similar flexibility to pave the way for a climate change deal this year

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 12:14pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 September, 2015, 12:14pm

The time has come for a fireside chat between US President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping to lay the groundwork of trust needed for a breakthrough at the Paris climate change conference at the end of the year. If an accommodation can be made between these two states, the possibility for global progress will be opened up.

If Beijing and Washington refuse to lower their guards, then bringing the rest of the world on board will be close to impossible. Thus, achieving a compromise on a post-Kyoto climate change deal hinges on the one ingredient currently lacking between the two leaders - trust.

Can the theatrics and bravado be put aside by both parties, even for a few hours, for a fireside chat?

In 1985, when cold war tensions were high, US president Ronald Reagan and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev met on the shores of Lake Geneva for the first time. Not only did this include the now famous "fireside chat", but it also provided multiple opportunities for the leaders to talk directly without teams of staffers and advisers, and without copious notes and position papers. Both would go on to confirm later that this opportunity was critical in reducing the mistrust between the two at the individual level.

The following year, they convened in Reykjavik and held a 10½-hour discussion in which the prospect of complete nuclear disarmament was discussed in depth as a serious option. The Reykjavik summit itself resolved relatively little in concrete terms and both leaders left frustrated about how close they had come to negotiating an end to the nuclear arms race that had consumed their relationship for decades without being able to leap over the last hurdle.

However, this is now described by some as the "weekend that ended the cold war". It was the moment when the two leaders managed to discuss their countries' relationship and the future they wanted to achieve with honesty and respect. It built a further degree of trust that allowed them to accommodate each other's power and concerns. This ensured that, over the next few years, the cold war ended without direct (and therefore nuclear) war between the superpowers.

It subsequently led to the negotiations that would later produce the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty - the only treaty of the cold war in which both superpowers agreed to completely ban an entire class of missiles.

The US-Sino relationship today is very different from the US-Soviet relationship in 1986. However, a similar trust deficit currently characterises relations between Washington and Beijing. The two increasingly treat each other as strategic rivals, and if the last major attempt to create a breakthrough at multilateral climate change talks in Copenhagen in 2009 taught us anything, it is that these two states do not yet have the requisite trust to be able to tackle transnational challenges together.

As we get closer to what increasingly appears to be the last chance to get any kind of multilateral agreement on climate change that will make a meaningful difference, the leaders of these two states desperately need to build trust.

Of course, they are not the only important players here, but if a degree of trust could be built, then negotiations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, from November 30 to December 11, may have a chance of success.

Xi is visiting Washington next week. High-level visits between the two countries have recently been marked by officials taking the opportunity to criticise and grandstand. The question is, can the theatrics and bravado be put aside by both parties, even for a few hours, for a fireside chat?

Dr Benjamin Zala is a lecturer in international politics in the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Leicester, UK