5 Sep 2013

G20: Merkel yawns, Cameron shrugs off Syria defeat


The G20 leaders are now in their first session, discussing the world economy.

There were pretty perfunctory welcomes for everyone from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin with the exception of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – they share Russian and German languages so maybe find it easier to chat (though President Putin also has some English – he started the whole summit with: “Are we ready?”).

The sun is blazing outside and the temperature should rise inside over dinner later as President Putin has put Syria on the menu.

These G20s were devised as economic talking-shops, but the Russian president has calculated that he might as well frame a discussion about it as it will dominate many chats on the fringe anyway.

It is thought he will ask the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, to address the table.

Read more: G20 discord on Syria guaranteed

It’s really the G20 + 11 + 3 as there are the G20 countries in the room plus 11 organisations – the ILO, EU, EC, IMF, OECD, WTO, World Bank, African Union, ASEAN, New Partnership for Africa’s Development and FSB – plus another three countries invited in their own right – Spain, Kazakhstan, Singapore.

Getting a real conversation going in that sort of setting is tricky bordering on the impossible and President Putin didn’t exactly get things off to a zinging start with a lengthy read from a script that got chancellor Merkel stifling a yawn within two minutes of the kick-off.

When I spoke to David Cameron just before the opening session, he insisted that Britain’s relationship with the world had not changed as a result of the UK deciding it wouldn’t join the US planned attacks on military sites in Syria.

Read more: Russia and Iran warn the US against strike war

He rejected the idea that he’d failed in his responsibility to convince people of what he argued last week was a vitally important action.

In contrast to the tone of others like George Osborne talking about the need for a “soul-searching” national debate about isolationism, Mr Cameron in answer after answer appeared to shrug it off.

He was focused on humanitarian assistance now, he said, and he rejected the idea that he had presumed he’d win and not worked hard enough on making converts.

When I asked if he thought President Barack Obama was expanding his war aims to win over some more interventionist senators he said he thought the aims remained the same… but you get the distinct impression he isn’t sure because he hasn’t as yet had that conversation.

Read more: ‘Isolationist spring’ – future votes and Congress

You come away with the impression that he knows all too well that he has failed by his own markers to convert his party and the country to action he thinks should be taken.

But he believes there could be a lethal defeat awaiting him if he tried to put Syrian action to a critical vote in the commons.

So he won’t be leading some great national debate about isolationism – though you might get a newspaper article or two popping out over the coming weeks.

And with China now openly calling for a UN Security Council vote before any action, President Putin can be pretty sure that the US, France and Britain will be outnumbered by opponents of armed intervention.

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