ANTALYA, Turkey. The skies over the Middle East and South Asia were crowded Monday night as no fewer than seven VIP aircraft carried heads of state and government from one summit to another. It began stage two of a moveable feast.
The special planes, most of them 747s, brought President Obama and the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Australia and Canada from the G20 in Antalya to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Manila.
John Kirton, a summit watcher at the University of Toronto, complains that leaders often spend more time flying to summits than actually talking to each other face to face.
Despite the extravagance and expense of these now annual meetings they are useful as leaders benefit from getting to know each other. Surprises are avoided. Cross-cultural interaction reduces misunderstanding. Informal chats in corridors or at social events are opportunities for unscripted communication. They’re often more important than the meetings themselves.
Such was the case at Antalya, a summit likely to remembered if at all for the unplanned 35-minute corridor meeting between President Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin. The subject was Syria and how to stop the catastrophic civil war.
A photograph of the two leaders leaning toward each other seated in a hotel lobby, was taken by Russian summit planner (Sherpa) Svetlana Lukash. It was an image tweeted around the world.
Obama, Putin, national security chief Susan Rice, and interpreter
University of Rochester scholar Alan Wallis, a summit planner for President Reagan, defended summits as “meetings of peers who have no peers at home.” Their real value, he said, is leaders meet their counterparts as equals.”
Only the leaders and their closest advisors know what really went on over two days in Antalya. However there must have been awkward moments. What did 91-year-old Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe make of the long discussion about refugees? Representing the African Union at the summit, up to a third of Zimbabwe’s population—some four million people– have become refugees since Mugabe assumed power in 1980.
Not all of the dual members of the G20 and APEC have moved on to stage two of the moveable feast. Vladimir Putin chose not to travel to Manila and neither did the president of Indonesia.#
Barry D. Wood has been reporting from economic summits since 1980.