Depending On Optics From Hamburg G20 To Understand The Current State Of The World

Raman Swamy

When 20 powerful world leaders meet the whole world watches to see what important subjects they discuss and whether they come out with wonderful ways to defuse global tension and lead humanity towards peace and prosperity.

But that is just wishful thinking.  The reality is quite the opposite.  When 20 world leaders meet, they just parade before television cameras, smile and shake hands with each other and pose for group photographs in well-tailored suits and dresses.  

Behind closed doors they continue to bicker over burning issues, refusing to deviate even an inch from their known positions and quibble over every word in the joint statement to be issued after the event.

This is what happened during the G20 summit in Hamburg this week.  For two full days on Friday and Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel played host to the world’s most powerful political leaders from the top industrialized and emerging countries. 

On the surface, the agenda was to save the world from itself.  The focus was supposed to be on finding ways to resolve global conflicts, enhance international trade, combat terrorism and avert climatic catastrophe. 

The guests included seven Presidents and eleven Prime Ministers (and a Finance Minister from Saudi Arabia) representing two-thirds of the world’s population and 85 per cent of global GDP.  Also in attendance were the heads of nine international organizations like the UN, IMF, WTO, ILO, WHO, et al.

The venue was the fabulous Hamburg Messe convention center, spread over 25 acres of ultra-modern facilities for meetings and exhibitions.  

Outside, on the streets of Germany’s biggest port city, hundreds of demonstrators clashed with police, set fire to vehicles and shouted slogans against capitalism, climate politics and globalization.   

Inside, the leaders of Russia, China and America acted like the prima donnas they are in today’s global balance of power and all the other Presidents and Prime Ministers - from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, France, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey - vied with each other catch the world’s eye and assert  their own importance.   As the hostess Angela Merkel moved around graciously, soothing bruised egos and ensuring that decorum was maintained.

In the end, what was the outcome? Nobody really knows for sure.  There was only a hint at a possible agreement on a partial ceasefire in war-torn Syria, no breakthrough on dealing with a belligerent North Korea, a diluted resolution on climate change and a few mostly bilateral trade treaties. 

Substance-wise nothing remarkable, as one European diplomat candidly admitted, “but every G20 meeting like this does stave off the dangers of more conflicts and certainly contributes to better understanding between personalities controlling the destinies of mankind”.

However, from the point of view of optics, the Hamburg summit was a spectacular success for some of the personalities and for the world media. 

There are many people all over the world who think that photographs of their leaders hugging, shaking hands and even seen in whispered conversations with one another is only of superficial significance. 

But some experts disagree.  Body language is incredibly important, they say. It really does matter.  What Putin’s demeanor is, for instance, sends a signal.  Trump’s posture while dealing with very tricky issues tells a story.  Merkel’s facial expression in an unguarded moment reveals a lot.

An appearance of confidence or at least an appearance of self-assuredness is important in diplomacy. They are not secondary matters. 

At the same time, one has to be very careful in a room full of many world leaders.  There is an old Chinese saying that goes something like this:  “If you give a new friend a warm hug in public, you might risk an old friend giving you a snub”.

Jul 09, 2017

Raman Swamy [email protected]

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