Obama and Cameron at G20 summit: At least the US-UK World Cup duel is over

When Obama and Britain's Cameron meet Saturday at the G20 summit, at least they won't have a World Cup matchup between their countries to tussle over. The need for more stimulus to propel the global economic recovery? That's another matter.

US President Barack Obama (C) jokes with (L-R) France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron after the G8 leaders posed for a group photo at the G8 Summit at the Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville, Ontario, on Friday.

Britain’s new prime minister, David Cameron, reports friskily that he might have to wrestle German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the ground when the two leaders take time out from the weekend G20 summit in Canada to watch Sunday’s World Cup pairing of the two European soccer giants.

So it comes as no small relief that England and the United States have already had their World Cup matchup – with the two teams tying, 1-1, on June 12. After all, Mr. Cameron is to have his debut meeting as prime minister with President Obama Saturday, and a wrestling match might not be the best way to start off the latest iteration of the “special relationship.”

The truth is that, while the two leaders are in some ways predisposed to seeing eye to eye – both are young leaders, though Cameron is the younger at 46, and both are cool pragmatists – they also have more serious differences to address than a sports rivalry.

To name a few: stimulus spending or budget cutting to address the sputtering global recovery; military budgets, Afghanistan, and national capacities in the NATO Alliance; and the BP (formerly British Petroleum) oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

In the runup to this weekend’s G8 and G20 summits, Mr. Obama sent a letter to the G20 leaders warning that now, with the threat of a double-dip recession looming, was no time to be cutting spending but rather to be considering additional stimulus, especially to consumer spending. Perhaps Cameron was too busy to read the memo, because he was in the thick of announcing Britain’s most draconian spending cuts, and some hefty tax increases, in decades.

The prime minister told BBC television earlier this week that “there is no difference on [the need to foster economic growth] between us and the Americans.” But that may have been a sly way of sidestepping differences over the “how” of favoring growth.

“We must be flexible in adjusting the pace of consolidation and learn from the consequential mistakes of the past when stimulus was too quickly withdrawn and resulted in renewed economic hardships and recession,” Obama said (perhaps a wee bit pedantically) in his letter to G20 leaders.

To which Cameron seemed to reply, in an opinion piece published Friday in Toronto’s Globe and Mail: “Of course, there must be the flexibility for countries to act, taking account of their own national circumstances,” he wrote. “But I believe we must each start by setting out plans for getting our national finances under control.”

For relief from a stubbornly limp global economy, Afghanistan anyone? Britain maintains the second-largest deployment in the war after the US, but some administration officials worry that when Cameron says he doesn’t want a British soldier on the ground there “a day longer than necessary,” he may be looking to wind down the British presence sooner rather than later.

Then there is the broader issue of defense spending. Obama administration officials have pressed European leaders to reverse their continent’s trend of dwindling military budgets, pointing out that it makes them less able and willing to respond to joint Alliance missions like the one in Afghanistan.

But the British military – though it remains the largest in Europe – was not spared in Cameron’s emergency budget, furrowing brows across Washington.

That leaves the BP oil spill, which won’t exactly be cause for happy talk between the two leaders.

Obama and Cameron already sought to calm transatlantic tensions over the Gulf oil leak and responsibilities for cleaning it up in a telephone call last weekend. But the British press and some members of Parliament have continued to find anti-British sentiment in the US administration’s approach to the disaster, and specifically in Obama’s rhetoric.

Cameron, who has emphasized the importance to Britons and Americans alike of a financially healthy BP, plans to query Obama about the array of costs facing BP in the disaster cleanup, a spokesman to the prime minister said Friday.

Not exactly a fun agenda. But wait! Maybe sport can lighten things up after all. White House officials say Obama is likely to turn to the World Cup as a way of striking a friendly (if subtly dominant – the Brits might say typically American-arrogant) tone in the conversation.

Word has it that Obama will rib Cameron over the fact that Team USA, and not the mighty English, came out on top of their common first-round group.


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