The projected face-to-face meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after seven decades of war and enmity would immediately take its place in the historic pantheon of electrifying summits between sworn foes.
Although the moment, protagonists and locations become enshrined in history books, major summits hold no guarantee of further progress. In some cases, the summit is as good as it gets as relations remain stagnant or plummet further.
Here’s a look at some of the key summits since the end of the Second World War that have left an indelible mark on the collective global memory.
U.S.-Russians: Cool, with brief thaws
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy met in Vienna in 1961.
U.S. government accounts of the summit suggest it was extremely tense. The Soviet leader demanded an immediate treaty to reunify Germany under terms unfavourable to the U.S. The collapse raised the spectre of an actual war between the two nuclear-armed foes. Two months later, the Berlin Wall went up.
Richard Nixon flew to the Soviet capital in 1972, the first visit to Moscow by a sitting U.S. president, for a week of meetings with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The two leaders clinched agreements limiting ballistic missiles and slowing the nuclear arms race and smaller deals on education, science, maritime co-ordination and public health.
Another breakdown between leaders, this time in the Icelandic capital, came in 1986 between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Hastily arranged with low expectations, the summit grew in scope to the point it appeared a major arms reduction deal might be reached. The two leaders were pictured in iconic photos smiling together at Hofdi House in Reykjavik. But in the end, they failed to seal an accord or even agree on a date for a followup summit in the U.S.
A decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, President George W. Bush famously looked into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s eyes.
“I was able to get a sense of his soul — a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country,” Bush said afterward.
China rises in U.S. calculus
In 1972, Nixon made the historic and unprecedented journey to meet Chairman Mao, in part paved by members of an American ping-pong delegation who travelled to Beijing the year before.
Their historic handshake was as much about countering the Soviet threat as building trade and cordial relations between the two countries. China felt directly threatened by the Soviets at the time, and Nixon was thought to have parlayed the nascent relationship as a counter to Moscow over arms control negotiations.
Over the decades, successive U.S. presidents have held summits with their Chinese counterparts at home and abroad. Trump most recently hosted President Xi Jinping in 2017 at his Florida estate and was welcomed by Xi to China with fanfare later in the year. But the relationship remains uneasy due to trade disputes and North Korea.
Mideast: Deals struck but some peace elusive
When Egyptian President Anwar Sadat visited Israel in 1977, it signalled a new beginning for the battle-weary nations that would transform the region. After decades of animosity and just four years after a bitter war, Sadat came with a historic offer of peace.
Israelis watched in disbelief as Sadat descended from an Egyptian plane on Nov. 19 and set foot on Israeli soil. Images of the Egyptian leader shaking hands with his old enemies, including the legendary Gen. Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister Golda Meir, and speaking at Israel’s parliament brought euphoria to Israelis and sent shockwaves throughout the region.
The visit set the tone for the Camp David peace summit that led to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty Signing Ceremony in 1979 where Sadat famously declared: “Let there be no more wars or bloodshed between Arabs and the Israelis.”
The peace treaty was the first between Israel and an Arab country, and relations between the former enemies have remained intact.
It would also lay the groundwork for a series of Mideast summits, most famously a 1993 White House meeting where Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat signed an initial peace agreement.
The two longtime adversaries had never met before, and Rabin looked clearly uncomfortable as President Bill Clinton brought them together to shake hands. That awkward handshake remains an iconic image of Israeli-Palestinian history.
But the peace process has largely gone nowhere since the 1995 assassination of Rabin. A 2000 summit between Arafat and Israel’s Ehud Barak broke up amid dashed expectations, followed by a yearslong violent uprising.
Palestinians have self-rule in Gaza and in enclaves of the West Bank, but negotiations for a final deal to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state have repeatedly fallen apart amid bouts of violence and recrimination.
Korean Peninsula: 2 previous strikes
Before Trump and Kim meet, expected sometime in May, South Korean President Moon Jae-in will hold a summit with the North’s leader in April. That in and of itself was major news: The leaders of the two Koreas have only met twice before.
The first time came in 2000 between Kim Jong-il, the late father of North Korea’s current leader, and South Korea’s then president, liberal Kim Dae-jung. A broadly smiling Kim Jong-il tightly grabbed the hands of Kim Dae-jung at the Pyongyang airport, and the next three days led to an agreement to resume family reunions and a deal on joint economic projects, though those have since stalled.
The second inter-Korean summit came in October 2007 between Kim Jong-il and Roh Moo-hyun, Kim Dae-jung’s successor and the current president’s political mentor. In a highly symbolic moment, Roh crossed the Demilitarized Zone and met with Kim in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. There, they agreed to pursue a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War and reached a set of co-operation projects.
But most of the accords were shelved after Roh’s single five-year term ended months later. He was replaced by a conservative who took a harder line over the North’s nuclear ambitions.