The BBC has an interesting story about a World War II summit meeting that tells us a bit about how the world has changed, and also, perhaps, about how it hasn’t.
The story took place in 1942, when Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, traveled to Moscow for a summit meeting with Joseph Stalin, the dictator who led the Soviet Union. The two countries were new allies, brought together by their common foe, Nazi Germany.
The initial meetings between the leaders didn’t exactly go smoothly. Churchill requested another meeting, which began at 7 p.m. At 1 a.m. an under-secretary of the British Foreign Office was invited to join the proceedings and found Stalin, Churchill, and Russian Foreign Secretary Molotov sitting around the shredded remains of a suckling pig on a table covered with countless bottles of liquor. By that time Churchill was just drinking wine and complaining of a headache, and Stalin made the bureaucrat drink a concoction that was “pretty savage.” The meeting continued until 3 a.m., when the Brits stumbled back to their rooms, packed, and headed to the airport.
The drinking party was unconventional — although not unusual for the Soviets, whose reputation for long, vodka-saturated banquets continued for decades — but it did the trick. Churchill and Stalin established a personal connection that helped the allies steer their way to victory over the Axis powers.
It’s hard to imagine our modern political leaders having drinking bouts and making bleary-eyed policy decisions at 2 a.m. after guzzling countless shots of booze. We obviously wouldn’t want them to do so. But the importance of making a personal connection remains as true today as it was 70 years ago during the dark days of a global war. Summit meetings still make sense because we want our leaders to be able to take the measure of each other and establish relationships that can stand the stress when times get tough.