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Only recently have national leaders gone eye-to-eye. Is the world safer? 

FOR MOST OF HISTORY, national leaders seldom met. Travel was tough. Emissaries handled foreign relations. But in the 20th century, contact between heads of state—including American presidents—became possible, then routine. Executives could be their own diplomats.

An apogee of highest-level diplomacy was the bond President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, established during World War II, each serving as his own

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping grip and grimly grin during dinner at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, on April 6, 2017.

best ambassador. Family history prepared them for the interaction: FDR’s parents introduced him to European travel when he was a boy, Churchill had an American mother. Their early careers coincided during World War I, when both managed their countries’ navies. Their strategic visions were similar: the two democrats saw Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan as threats to peace and freedom, and welcomed the Soviet Union as a necessary ally in crushing the Axis. Roosevelt and Churchill lubricated their relationship with vast amounts of charm. Both liked a good story and a stiff drink; Churchill likened meeting Roosevelt to uncorking a bottle of Champagne.

But what if a president meets face to face with counterparts who are stone-faced?

The third player in World War II’s Grand Alliance was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Brute strategic facts underlay his partnership with FDR and Churchill. The 1939 German-
Soviet non-aggression pact blew up less than two years later when Hitler invaded his “ally.” To save himself and his besieged country, Stalin needed American materiel. The democracies needed the Soviets and their armies to tie down and chew up the Nazi war machine.

A master of the personal touch, FDR felt he could charm Stalin as he had Churchill. “I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department,” the president wrote the prime minister in March 1942. “Stalin hates the guts of all your top people. He thinks he likes me better, and I hope he will continue to do so.” After Roosevelt met Stalin at the Tehran conference in late 1943, he told Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins that he “felt himself on very good personal terms with Marshall Stalin. He liked him and found him extremely interesting.” Stalin knew this, too, thanks to bugs his secret police had planted in Roosevelt’s rooms at Tehran, and later at the Yalta conference. “I was able to establish from my eavesdropping,” a top Soviet spook wrote in his memoirs, “that Roosevelt felt great respect and sympathy for Stalin.”

FDR thought that warm personal feelings would pay foreign policy dividends. “You know,” he told Perkins, “I really think the Russians will go along with me about having no spheres of influence” in postwar Europe. He could not have been more wrong. Stalin put his faith in facts on the ground. “The heart of the matter,” he explained to Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, “is the correlation of forces.” Churchill handled Stalin more realistically when he presented him
in October 1944 with a secret framework—a “naughty document,” in Churchill’s words—divvying the Balkans, with Britain playing
a lead role in Greece. Stalin agreed; when Greek communists subsequently attempted
a coup against the monarchy, the Soviets did not back them. In Romania and Bulgaria, Stalin was given—and wielded—a free hand.

FDR had used charm all his life, from his happy-go-lucky college days to his mid-life struggles with paralysis. Camera lenses loved his sunshine smile and his cigarette holder cocked like Cyrano’s nose. But charm did not work on a Georgian ideologue who had clawed his way to the top of a totalitarian state and stayed there by murdering rivals.

Face time between presidents and communist chieftains often has been unproductive. John F. Kennedy, who met Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961 to discuss divided Berlin, came away believing that summit had been “the worst thing in my life….he just beat the hell out of me.” Khrushchev, mistaking Kennedy’s inexperience for weakness, responded by building the Berlin Wall. Richard Nixon touted his 1972 meeting with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai as historic, as indeed it was: for 23 years, the United States had refused ostentatiously to recognize China’s communist government. But some observers thought the trip went to Nixon’s head: conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr. wrote that the president presented his visit as “a pageant of moral togetherness. [He] managed to give the impression that he was consorting with Marian Anderson, Billy Graham and Albert Schweitzer.” George W. Bush, upon meeting Vladimir Putin in Slovenia in 2001, said “I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” Bush’s last two assertions were certainly true—with the caveat that Putin is even more deeply committed to running his country. But Putin’s soul is a chilly landscape that will not bear much inspection. Barack Obama, tilting in the other direction, felt personal distaste for Putin, which he showed too candidly. “I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom,” Obama said in 2013. “But…when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive.” Probably not often after that remark.

Having met some of the world’s strongmen, President Donald Trump has emulated predecessors in personalizing those encounters. Two weeks before his 2017 trip to Beijing, Trump told an interviewer that China’s President Xi Jinping is “a very good person….We have a very good relationship, and that’s a positive thing.” In China, he told Xi, “my feeling toward you is incredibly warm. We have great chemistry. I think we’ll do tremendous things, China and the U.S.” At the Asia-Pacific Economic Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, Trump and Putin chatted several times, Trump absolved the Russian of meddling in the 2016 election. “Every time he sees me, he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’” Trump declared later. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”

Like a contestant on “The Apprentice,” Trump was feeling opening-night thrills. His air-kiss to Xi came after he spent the 2016 election attacking China as a currency mani- pulator. His faith in Putin is simply incredible: the Russians did not flip the election, but anyone with a Twitter account knows they tried to muddy it. Even I, lowly historian, had a made-in-Russia follower. His name was American, but his avatar was Putin flexing a bicep, and his English clearly had come from a textbook.

Politics is communal; no matter what the form of government, pols deal with superiors, inferiors, or rivals. But democratic politicians also must deal with voters, putting a premium on bonhomie, however crude. Candidates for office must cultivate people skills; winning encourages them to believe their share of those skills is considerable—and they are, in societies where hands are shaken and babies kissed. But in the hard world of hierarchies, prison camps, and secret police, politicians cast a cold eye on one another—and keep a tight rein on such feelings they still possess.

Given time and patience, President Trump may learn. He will have many chances to.