Forget diplomacy: this was the stroppy summit
Published in The Mail on Sunday (September 8th, 2013)
Welcome to the stroppy summit. Held in one of Europe’s most spectacular cities, it was designed to discuss the stuttering global economy but overshadowed by the carnage in Syria.
And forget any idea of dignified diplomacy to resolve the planet’s most pressing problems. When the world’s most powerful politicians flew in to St Petersburg, they indulged in an abject display of posturing, preening and petulance.
The G20 began with juvenile jinks over the seating at dinner and ended with open feuding among presidents and prime ministers representing two-thirds of the world’s population.
At the centre of it all was Vladimir Putin, the prickly Russian president hosting the bash amid the baroque splendours of a Baltic city built three centuries ago as a symbol of his nation’s strength. His determination to protect Bashar Assad, his murderous Syrian ally who buys so much Russian weaponry, intensified a new Cold War with the United States.
And it was a tough two days for David Cameron: shunted to the sidelines by Parliament’s reluctance to intervene against Assad, the butt of barbs from the Russians, and summoned to a testy meeting with Putin at 2am where they rowed for 20 minutes over Syria.
Cameron also raised the issue of deteriorating gay rights, which have prompted calls for a boycott of next year’s winter Olympics in Sochi. His belligerent host replied that he needed Russians to make more children, but promised gay athletes and visitors faced no discrimination.
Even as world leaders tucked into their salmon blinis and venison at the showcase dinner in the Peterhof Palace, Cameron’s advisers were frantically working out a response to the jibe that defined his trip to Russia.
Putin’s spokesman was said to have dismissed Britain as ‘the small island no one listens to’, going on to joke about his country’s oligarchs ‘buying Chelsea’.
Yet the slur underscored Cameron’s reduced role at this surreal shindig – along with his nation’s uncertainty over its rightful place in a fast-changing world. One source close to French president Francois Hollande said Cameron had been neutered by the refusal of MPs to back military action in Syria.
Others were even more direct about the impact of the parliamentary vote ten days ago. ‘Britain has been made to look less reliable on the world stage, and Parliament has diminished the office of the Prime Minister,’ said one of Cameron’s closest colleagues.
The Prime Minister responded to the Russian jibe by rhapsodising over our role in shaping the world – although his claim that Britain defeated fascism must have rankled in a country that lost 20 million people in the Second World War.
But it diverted attention from the harsh realities of the summit, which as key Downing Street insiders admitted, must have been difficult for Cameron given his deep-felt desire to respond to Syrian atrocities.
Yet Cameron, while still arguing passionately for intervention, had to focus on pushing the cause of increased humanitarian aid rather than play the pivotal role he so desired in the unfolding drama over possible US-led attacks on Syria. So while Hollande discussed war plans with Barack Obama, Cameron discussed a possible trade trip with China’s leader Xi Jinping.
From the start of this fractious summit there were symbolic differences. All the leaders were delivered in Russian-assembled BMWs – except for Obama, last to arrive in his own Cadillac for the briefest possible handshake with his host.
Tensions boiled over at the sumptuous dinner that evening in the gilded palace. Obama turned up late again after working phones to win support for the looming Congressional vote on intervention, then went straight over for a strategic huddle with Cameron.
For the next three hours, the leaders put their case on Syria while waiters bought a succession of desserts and topped up wine glasses.
Cameron, Obama and Turkish premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan led arguments for a forceful response to the use of chemical weapons. Germany’s Angela Merkel was more cautious, while China, India and Brazil were among those joining Russia in opposing any attacks without UN backing.
The tension between the two key players – Obama and Putin – was palpable. ‘It was not exactly what you would call a debate, more the staking out of positions,’ said one source.
The low point came when Cristina Kirchner, the Botoxed Argentine president, droned on for 25 minutes about her country’s history and past wars. Cameron eventually took out his translation earpiece and swung it ostentatiously from his fingers.
Afterwards, the weary world leaders trooped outside to watch dancing and fireworks, which at one point poured down a terrace like a golden waterfall.
Following his late-night meeting with Putin, Cameron snatched two hours’ sleep before the second day’s round of tense discussions and tetchy press conferences.
On Friday evening, as participants clashed publicly in their final pronouncements, Putin made an alarming pledge to ‘help’ Assad in the event of air strikes. Even for this pugnacious president, it was a gobsmacking response after a gathering of global leaders and following the use of chemical weapons to slaughter civilians.
Last time some of these leaders met – at the G8 meeting three months ago on the banks of Lough Erne – Putin cut an isolated figure defending Assad. It came less than a week after the Americans announced plans to provide military support for rebels.
This time, however, the Russian leader clearly enjoyed exacting revenge on Cameron and Obama, who after the Northern Irish summit had compared him to ‘a bored kid in the back of the classroom’.
As Cameron left St Petersburg he was given a Russian doll with his face on it. Inside, were smaller and smaller dolls of his Downing Street predecessors going back to a tiny Winston Churchill at the core. Was this a kind gift – or one more dig?
Meanwhile, a weakened Obama flew back to Washington facing a battle to persuade Congress to authorise military action. Ten of the other G20 nations signed a statement accusing Assad of carrying out the chemical attacks, yet only France among them is offering forces in support.
There is no doubt who the biggest losers were after this motley collection of world leaders spent two days in Tsarist palaces striking poses over Syria. As Cameron said, there is one new refugee created every 15 seconds in a savage civil war that has left 100,000 people dead – and for all the pontificating in St Petersburg, an end to their plight seems further away than ever.