The joy of first in-person global summit meeting

Joe Biden and his wife Jill are greeted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie in Carbis Bay, England, on Friday.

Call it the much-welcomed death of Zoom diplomacy.

US President Joe Biden and six leaders from the world’s richest nations are meeting — face-to-face — in a picturesque, seaside resort in Cornwall, on England’s southwestern shore. It is the first in-person global summit meeting since the coronavirus pandemic shut down travel and forced Presidents and Prime Ministers to reach for the “raise hand” button, just like everyone else.

Summit meetings are always full of pre-packaged “deliverables”, but stage management always works better when there is an actual stage.

So as Friday’s summit opened, Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who is not only hosting the gathering but lured most of the royal family to a formal dinner, announced that the Group of 7 nations would collectively donate one billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine to the developing world.

The G7 pledge includes Biden’s promise to deliver 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. It was a very conscious effort to show that the world’s richest democracies can catch up with China’s moves to establish itself as a leader in the fight against the coronavirus.

As the leaders gathered in hastily built meeting rooms just feet from a sandy shore at Carbis Bay in Cornwall, the real sign that in-person diplomacy is back was Friday’s dinner, with plenty of royalty, from Queen Elizabeth to Prince Charles, Prince William and Kate Middleton, who earlier in the day met the US First Lady, Jill Biden, at a British school. They dined at the Eden Project, an environmental charity.

It was balm for Joe Biden, who loved nothing more than jetting around the world as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then as Vice-President — a man who actually enjoyed roaming the halls of the famed Hotel Bayerischer Hof, where the Munich Security Conference is held each year. He could be seen, two hands on a diplomat’s shoulder, making his point, persuading, posing for pictures.

Then such travel all came to a crashing stop. He campaigned from his basement. Once elected, his aides had strict rules that no more than five people could be in a White House office at a time. Four months ago, Biden held his first work-from-home meeting with a world leader, conferring with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in the only viable way during a pandemic: a video call from the Roosevelt Room in the White House.

More Zoom calls followed: a virtual meeting of the Quad group, which includes the US President, along with the leaders of India, Australia and Japan; and then a global climate summit “hosted” by Biden but conducted Brady Bunch style, with leaders stacked in video squares on big screens.

He tiptoed into real, human visits, inviting Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan and then President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, to the White House for brief visits.

This week, the one-at-a-time meetings ended.

Biden jetted across the Atlantic for an eight-day in-person round of global backslapping and private confrontations. On Friday, he attended the first day of a Group of 7 meeting with the leaders of the world’s richest nations. Then comes a full meeting of Nato leaders, and of the European Union, before the trip’s main event: a one-on-one face-off with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of face-to-face diplomacy,” said Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton.

“On Zoom, you have no kind of sense of their movements and how they sit and various things that show what kind of person you are dealing with,” she said. “You can’t judge what’s going through their minds.” (The Munich conference, she noted, is “a perfect setting for him”, referring to Biden.)

Richard Haass, a lifelong diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that face-to-face meetings are better than the alternative. “I will leave to others to assess the diplomatic implications of Zoom only requiring leaders to be formally clothed from the waist up,” he said.

But Haass warned against reading too much into “face-to-face meetings or personal diplomacy in general”.

“Leaders are motivated by what they see as their own and their country’s interests,” he said. “Diplomacy is a tool for advancing those interests, not for dispensing favours.”

Haass noted that “a face-to-face encounter can also give a leader too much confidence. Khrushchev erred when he concluded too much from his initial meeting with J.F.K. and later overplayed his hand, in the process bringing the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe”, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Of course, not all Presidents have loved a summit the way Biden does. President Barack Obama disliked the endless pomp of the formal summits that he attended during his eight years in the White House, especially the substance-free moments like the “family photo”, where the world leaders stand stiffly next to one another while photographers snap their shots. (There was one, at the edge of the water, on Friday.)

And there is always the possibility that a meeting can turn leaders sour on each other, as President Donald J. Trump proved during his time in office.

His presence at global meetings, including G7s, caused consternation and confrontation as he clashed with America’s allies. At the G7 in Quebec City in 2018, Trump refused to sign the leaders’ statement, called Trudeau “very dishonest and weak” and was grumpy throughout — as captured by a picture that showed him, hands crossed across his chest, with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany leaning over a table with the other leaders standing by. But for Biden, it is different.

Merkel, Trudeau and the other world leaders get along with Biden, even if their nations sometimes clash over issues. (Biden and Merkel disagree about the need for a Russian natural gas pipeline; Trudeau and others are not happy about the US President’s stand on trade and tariffs.)

Biden appeared relaxed and happy at Carbis Bay. On Thursday evening, as the sun set, he gave a formal talk about the 500 million vaccines, then reappeared, sockless in sneakers with his wife, Jill, at the tables outside a small cafe with a waterfront view. He made small talk with those a little shocked to see him. And the mood was light when the leaders gathered outside for that required photo.

“Everybody in the water,” he said — presumably joking.

New York Times News Service

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