These four leaders, each delegated by their people to represent their will, have the power to make history. That’s why their meetings carry such weight.
These days, the opportunities for personal meetings between the world’s major political leaders are few and far between given the commitments of heads of state and government, which are always so pressing in today’s complex world. This was clearly illustrated by a statistical analysis performed a few years ago. It revealed that during the course of a normal working day the Italian Prime Minister was asked to address so many different problems that he couldn’t allocate more than ten minutes to each.
So leaders from various countries end up being more or less glued to their chairs and their opportunities for contact with their peers is usually limited to phone calls and video conferences. These are undoubtedly very useful surrogates, but they certainly cannot replace direct, one-to-one meetings.
This is why celebrations to mark important events take on a new significance beyond the official reason for the occasion because they enable leaders to meet and engage in a whirlwind of private, bilateral talks and eventually even multilateral meetings. Last October’s 70th anniversary gathering marking the founding of the United Nations was a case in point.
These UN celebrations meant that four of the world’s most important leaders – United States President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pope Francis (who, regardless of his Argentinean birth was representing the global Catholic community and so is not assigned a nationality) – were all in the United States at the same time. And they took advantage of the opportunity for an exchange of views that is only now beginning to produce results.
The fifth major world leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was not given any of the limelight and did not attract the media’s attention, even though she was also present. This is further proof of how the German-led European Union’s influence will continue to be totally irrelevant on the wider world stage at least until it develops a common foreign affairs and security policy. Given Europe’s irrelevance, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon assumed the role of fifth major leader on this occasion. In his opening address before the UN Assembly, he spoke with the freedom of someone whose mandate is nearing its conclusion, launching a scathing attack on the permanent members of the UN Security Council that accused them of systematically paralysing the UN’s operations by using and abusing their right of veto.
In the discussions between the four leaders, Obama was undoubtedly in the most delicate and difficult position. Since he was playing the role of host, in some ways he was obliged to engage in bilateral discussions with all the others, even though this meant receiving Putin, whom the West has effectively labelled as persona non grata since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. This rift meant the US President felt the need to stress the US’ declaratory policy in his speech to the UN General Assembly, reiterating, among other things, his commitment to reject any solution for Syria that does not involve the immediate removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Putin, on the other hand, while appearing uncompromising in his plan to revive Russia’s superpower status to the levels reached during the Soviet Union, was particularly adamant that any kind of agreement to stabilise the Middle East needs the complete, pro-active commitment of all those involved – not only major world powers but regional ones too. The subsequent round of Syrian peace talks in Vienna, which also involve Russia and the US, on the one hand showed how declarations and facts can sometimes diverge, and on the other revealed the main topic of conversation probably covered by Putin and Obama in their one-to-one meeting.
China’s leader Xi Jinping travelled to the US at a time when relations between China and the US were particularly strained. He therefore took every possible opportunity to be reassuring. He promised the United Nations greater Chinese involvement in peacekeeping activities and donated a considerable amount of funds to a number of UN-run bodies. Then with Obama, he laid the ground for an initial collaboration in the sphere of information technology. The deal only covers industrial espionage for now, but this first step could lead to important developments in the future. It also touched on an issue that is extremely sensitive for the Americans who base their overarching military superiority on the unimpeded use of computers.
Other conciliatory moves, which may have been agreed during the private discussions between the two presidents, followed in the wake of the meeting. So it was that US warships deployed as a deterrent against Beijing’s land claims in the South China Sea were allowed to sail past a few of the disputed islands with the only repercussion being a diplomatic note, pure and simple verbal gesticulation. Very shortly afterwards, the meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan helped to further appease tensions in the area.
What about the pope in all this? The pontiff sent his first message by stopping off in Cuba before beginning his visit to the United States, a gesture meant to underline to the whole world, and the US in particular, how the time has come for all barriers setting human beings apart must be removed. The pope’s second message was issued during his speech to the UN General Assembly, which focused on the need to care for the have-nots as well as for the environment, another of God’s gifts, which very few people respect. Universal messages, which one hopes may also produce results in the future.
After the next round of meetings, it is unlikely that we will immediately find ourselves in a radically better world than before. However, a few steps in the right direction have certainly been taken. Isn’t this actually quite an achievement, given the short time the four leaders were able to spend away from the grey routine of their respective ‘White Houses’ to get together in the US?