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Saturday, 16 June, 2001, 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK
Getting to know you
President Bush junior
Bush junior: An easy manner and plain-speaking
By Diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall in Ljubljana

A cheerful banner emblazoned with the faces of Putin and Bush hangs across one of Ljubljana's street corners.

Municipal workers have hosed clean the voluptuous curves of the statues that adorn the city's baroque buildings.

It may be 10 years since the Cold War ended, but somehow there's a feeling that a "getting to know you summit" between Russia and America still matters.

After all, between them they still have most of the world's nuclear weapons, enough to blow us all up, and if the two leaders take a dislike to each other and decide they were sworn enemies again - God help the rest of us.

Chemistry crucial

In fact, if you look back at the superpower summits of the past 15 years, the personal chemistry between the leaders was always absolutely crucial.

Ljubljana
Ljubljana greets the leaders
Remember that first meeting between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan - the Geneva summit of the winter of 1985?

No arms control agreement came out of it, but afterwards we were astonished to learn the two leaders had gone for a walk together and chatted by the fire.

Now it does not sound very significant. But then the idea of a Soviet and American leader could do something so ordinary and human was revolutionary and laid the foundation for later trust that was to translate into new arms treaties.

Not that there were not all sorts of games going on to score points off each other. Gorbachev and his aides have since revealed they were extremely annoyed to find Ronald Reagan waiting on the steps to greet them without his hat on.

Mikhail Gorbachev, dressed in the obligatory Communist official uniform for chilly weather - gaberdine coat and trilby hat, felt wrong footed and uncomfortable next to his bareheaded host.

"But we Russians had no image makers, no one to advise us how to match up to the Americans," his wife Raisa was to complain later, looking back on those early summits.

Gorbachev and Reagan
Gorbachev lacked Reagan's image makers
Gorbachev was at a disadvantage in other ways too. George Schultz, Reagan's Secretary of State, became a frequent visitor to Moscow, shuttling back and forth to thrash out arms control proposals in preparation for a succession of summits.

But his discussions with Gorbachev, he later told me, would always go way beyond military questions. Before long, he said he realised his host might be the all-powerful leader of a sinister empire, but he was simply hungry for information of what life was really like in the West, and how capitalism functioned.

Before long, Schultz, a former professor from Stanford University, took to slipping teaching charts into his suitcase when he went to Moscow. And there in some grand hall of the Kremlin, he would sit, explaining how a market economy worked, while the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party sat, intently listening and learning.

Chummy with the enemy

There are other lessons from previous summits too. Look no further than George W's father, George Bush senior.

He too took his time agreeing to his first meeting with Mr Gorbachev - wary of being too chummy with the enemy. In fact he took so long reviewing US-Soviet relations that the Russians became seriously worried.

Bush senior and Gorbachev
Bush senior and Gorbachev ended up genuine friends.
They were not too pleased when the summit that finally brought Mr Bush and Mr Gorbachev together was not even on dry land, but on a boat - the so-called Malta summit.

Fine for George Bush, well used to messing about in boats off the coast of New England. But what a trial for poor old Gorby. Not only, like most Russians, was he more used to having hundreds of miles of steppe and forest between him and the ocean waves. That week in Malta just happened to be unseasonably inclement.

American officials who were there still chuckle at the memory of green-faced Soviet delegations making their way across the rocky waters of the bay in a succession of Shakespearian tempests. The Russians have no such fond memories. They will not agree to a floating summit again in a hurry.

What is also worth noting, though is that Bush senior may have pursued a reluctant courtship, but he and Gorby - as he still calls him - ended up genuine friends.

When the Soviet coup happened in 1991 and Gorbachev for three days disappeared from sight, arrested by hardliners in his own cabinet, President Bush was almost tearful.

The Bill and Boris show

But that is not the love affair Vladimir Putin and George Bush junior have to live up to. They have got to match the Boris and Bill show.

Summits between Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton were always lively affairs. Boris liked to play the clown. Bill Clinton liked to laugh a lot. They were a perfect foil for each other.

Clinton and Yeltsin
Bill laughed as Boris played the clown
How could you not laugh when Boris Yeltsin turned on his elbow and began arm wrestling with the Canadian prime minister, or reached inside his pocket and with a broad grin presented Clinton with a hideously ugly pen made specially from a piece of dismantled nuclear missile.

I suspect George W Bush might turn out to have the magic Yeltsin touch - an easy manner, plain-speaking, capable of bizarre behaviour that means he is assured of stealing the limelight. What I'm not so sure of is how Putin will react.

It is true he is a buttoned up ex-KGB spy and government bureaucrat, but he too likes to be the star of the show. And heis perfectly capable of thumping his shoe on the table - Khrushchev like - if he thinks it will help get his point across.

I'm not sure who will turn out to be the leading light of this particular duo.

One thing you can be sure of - these days both of them will have been running over scenarios with their "image makers", as Mrs Gorbachev used to call them, well aware the prestige of their respective nations may well rest of some anecdotal moment that will be remembered far longer than any official document.

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See also:

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Kyoto: Why did the US pull out?
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08 Jun 01 | Europe
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19 May 01 | Americas
Bush and Putin set for summit
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