At G-20 summit, a fragile web of relationships shapes outcomes

The Obama-Hu exchange seemed to go well, while dinner Wednesday night gave Obama and Germany's Merkel a chance to reach greater détente.

Steve Parsons/AP
Diplomacy seemed to influence seating arrangements at a dinner at Downing Street Wednesday evening. President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were seated next to each other.

LONDON – Like at any summit, the often fraught web of relationships between the G-20 leaders can be crucial to its outcome.

What then, can we deduce from some of the personal interactions on show thus far?

Well, Winston Churchill’s prized "special relationship" is alive and well on the basis of Barack Obama and Gordon Brown’s joint appearance Wednesday. Britain’s prime minister, on the ropes at home and badly in need of a boost from this summit, was barely able to disguise his delight with the effusive praise from the US president for his leadership efforts.

Though quite different characters – Mr. Brown is a bookish intellectual derided for his lack of charisma – the British-American alliance at this week’s summit appears to be firmly anchored.

On the other hand, the recession has revived the Franco-German axis which was so dominant for many years during the 1980s and '90s, with Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel overcoming previous tensions. In the past, the hyperactive nature of the French president is said to have tested the patience of even Germany’s softspoken chancellor.

But they were back speaking with one voice at their joint press conference in London Wednesday where, although Mr. Sarkozy was flamboyant as usual, Mrs. Merkel still emerged as the more senior partner in their calls for greater regulation of the world’s financial sector.

According to many experts, however, the most important relationships at this summit are those between the leaders of developing and non-developing countries.

“The Chinese, for example, would not distinguish this summit as being about how the Anglo-Saxons and the Europeans relate to each other,” says Kerry Brown, an expert on Chinese and Asian affairs at the Chatham House, a London institute specialising in the study of international relations. “The leaders of nations like China will be coming to a summit like this with a view to extracting more preferential treatment.”

Dr. Brown said that the signs from the crucial first meeting between Mr. Obama and the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, were good.

“The chemistry between Bush and Jintao was apparently very good, but we hear that Obama and Hu Jintao had a good chat, and the fact that Obama wants to visit China quite early will be particularly helpful in winning trust,” he said.

Mr. Hu is also likely to work closely with the other leaders of the BRIC group of emerging economies, which also includes Brazil, Russia, and India.

Elsewhere, more awkward personal tensions will have been masked by the traditional "family" group shot of the G-20 leaders.

Take Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of Europe's most controversial politicians and a man with perhaps more work to do than most when it comes to competing for the ear of Barack Obama. The summit has been their first meeting since left-wing opponents last year branded the Italian leader as racist for hailing Obama as "handsome, young, and also suntanned" after the US presidential election.

At a round table dinner at Downing Street on Wednesday night, diplomacy seemed to be a major influence on the seating arrangements. Mr. Berlusconi was seated on the opposite side of the table from Obama and few seats to the right, just out of earshot, perhaps.

Merkel was seated right beside the US president, offering an important opportunity for the two to reach greater détente. Directly across from them, Gordon Brown had Hu on his right, with Sarkozy just one seat beyond China’s president.

Before the dinner, Michelle Obama appeared to have breached the royal protocol when she put her arm around Queen Elizabeth II as the two were chatting at a reception for the world leaders hosted by the queen.

But Mrs. Obama's charm appears to have averted a diplomatic disaster – the queen also put her arm around the first lady, and asked her to "keep in touch," the BBC reported.

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