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Nation: Summit on Cannibal island

8 minute read

The West’s Big Four join forces at “somewhat of a social affair”

Conferences in a thatched-roof cabana on a white sand tropical beach; neither fixed agenda nor formal briefings; swimming and sunbathing amid purple bougainvillaea and orange hibiscus. This was the new look of summitry as Jimmy Carter met for two days last week on the fashionable resort island of Guadeloupe—a spot that Christopher Columbus originally named Cannibal Island—with French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, British Prime Minister James Callaghan and West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. But the informal and even sybariticsetting of the French island belied the gravity of the issues that the four leaders confronted during their summit in the sun. Their ambitious goal was, as Giscard put it before leaving Paris, to “evaluate the situation in the world.”

One of the most pressing tasks was to assess the mounting danger of upheavals within the “crescent of crisis” stretching from the eastern Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea (see cover stories). Nearly as important was the opportunity for a free wheeling exchange about the West’s changing relationship with Moscow and Peking, the deadlock over SALT, the U.S.S.R.’s continuing military buildup, and the warfare in southern Africa.

Carter has come to believe that personal contacts are important regardless of whether any decisions are reached. He generally chats with the other three by telephone about once a month. The allies had met at summits in London in 1977 and in Bonn last year. But these conclaves were attended by other nations (usually Canada, Italy and Japan) and were so tightly organized and filled with ceremonial that any real exchange of ideas proved difficult.

Giscard was chosen as host because no summit had been held under his auspices since 1975. When he issued the invitations for last week’s gathering, he stressed the “personal and informal” nature of the talks. He then set some unusual ground rules in an attempt to avoid the protocol restrictions common at such high-level conferences. Banned were all official minutes and tape recordings of the sessions. Left behind at home were Cabinet ministers because, as one French official explained, “they always show up with all of their files.” Although there were the usual legions of security personnel and communications experts to keep the leaders linked to their capitals, the official entourages were pretty trim compared with those of previous summits. Carter, for example, brought along only National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, White House Aide Hamilton Jordan, Press Secretary Jody Powell and a few other Administration staffers.

Specifically invited last week, however, were the leaders’ wives. Carter used the opportunity not only to give Rosalynn a vacation but also to treat eleven-year-old Amy to a Caribbean holiday. While their husbands discussed global problems, Rosalynn, Audrey Callaghan and Hannelore Schmidt were shown around the island by Anne-Aymone, Giscard’s wife. In the evenings, the women joined their spouses for dinner; the first night’s menu included a local fish, cheese and French champagne. With the four First Ladies present, the summit was indeed, as Carter had predicted, “somewhat of a social affair.”

The four leaders landed at Guadeloupe’s Pointe-à-Pitre airport within two hours of one another. The arrivals were easygoing: no pomp, bands or greeting ceremonies. At the summit site, the four leaders had identical lodgings: a cozy duplex made up of two units, each with its own bedroom, sitting room, kitchenette and bathroom.

The first round of talks was held in a beach cabana. No aides were present and, except for Giscard, no one brought any briefing papers. Spotting the French leader’s two notebooks, Carter quipped: “I see you’ve come well prepared.”

During the more than three-hour first session, according to French Press Secretary Pierre Hunt, each leader sketched the globe as he saw it in light of “new strategic balances now appearing.” Among the topics discussed were the West’s relations with underdeveloped countries and the political aspects of the international energy situation. Carter explained Washington’s new policy toward China, and the other three agreed that the normalization of U.S. ties with Peking was a positive step. But the Germans had been surprised by the suddenness of Carter’s move, and they were known to have feared originally that there might be a secret deal with Peking that could pit Washington against Moscow. Giscard stressed that the new U.S. policy on China must not interfere with negotiations with the Soviets. After the matter had been discussed, there was a consensus that the new China policy would not damage U.S. relations with the U.S.S.R. or draw the West into the Sino-Soviet conflict.

Callaghan informed his colleagues that London was about to close a $2 billion deal with Peking that includes the sale of Harrier jet fighters, plus two complete steel plants, three power stations and computer equipment. Because of the Harrier’s relatively short range, Washington regards the weapon as purely defensive, and Carter thus raised no objections to the proposed sale. But Giscard and Schmidt expressed concern that Moscow might view such a deal as anti-Soviet since it comes so soon after the U.S. normalization of relations with Peking.

Schmidt and Giscard complained that they were still dissatisfied with some aspects of the U.S.-West European relationship. They would like Carter to do more to fight inflation and foster energy conservation in the U.S. One specific problem they mentioned was the widespread concern in Western Europe that Washington might bargain away too much in the SALT negotiations with the Soviets. A particular worry: the U.S. might bow to Moscow’s demand for tight restrictions on the transfer of weapon technology. For the British, this could mean a sharp curtailment of cooperation with the Pentagon on nuclear weaponry, the backbone of Britain’s strategic deterrent. And Bonn does not want to be prevented from acquiring nonnuclear cruise missiles, which it has been counting on as the most promising defense against masses of Warsaw Pact tanks.

The three Europeans also said they hoped that future SALT agreements would limit Soviet weapons, such as the SS-20 missile and the Backfire bomber, that do not directly threaten the U.S. but can strike anywhere in Western Europe. Said a senior German official: “This is an issue as vital to us as the strategic long-range missiles are to the U.S.” During the summit’s second session, which was devoted exclusively to security issues, Carter outlined in detail the status of SALT II and sketched the prospects for SALT III. He assured his colleagues that he will continue consulting with them and has no intention of signing any agreement that could weaken the West’s defenses. The Europeans apparently were convinced. At the summit’s end, Schmidt and Callaghan specifically endorsed the U.S. view on SALT and urged ratification by the Senate. Said the British leader: “It would be a very sad day if the treaty were not ratified.”

Summits almost automatically rekindle the old stories about friction between Carter and Schmidt. It is no secret that the German has been critical of Carter for what he has considered inept leadership and a penchant for moralizing. Said a chancellery aide in Bonn: “Schmidt and Carter have met each other often enough now, but the wall of ice is still between them.”

But in Guadeloupe, the Germans went out of their way to deny that there were any problems between their Chancellor and Carter. “We are sick and tired of such talk,” groused a member of Schmidt’s staff. American officials also insisted there was no truth to the rumors. A White House staffer, for example, quoted Carter as saying that he was “feeling really good about the meeting.” But the President, in fact, also voices complaints about his summit colleagues and particularly worries that they lack grit in dealing with the Russians. He feels that this is especially the case with Schmidt.

The summit’s final session focused on what the French called points chauds, or hot points: the turmoil in Iran, Arab-Israeli relations, war in Cambodia, troubles in Pakistan and Turkey and the global oil supply. As predicted, no decisions were taken. After the talks concluded, each of the Big Four made a statement. While all minimized what Callaghan termed the “differences of nuance” between them, Carter was the most effusive. Said the beaming President: “Because of the almost unprecedented harmony that exists among us, I have never attended a conference that was more beneficial to me nor more substantive in nature.”

If Carter was not merely exercising the prerogative of presidential hyperbole, the Big Four might decide that their Guadeloupe meeting was worth the effort. If they conclude that it did in fact encourage the uninhibited, creative exchange of ideas that had been intended, then there may well be more informal summits on other tropical islands.

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