15 Nov 2014

Snubs and summits: a brief history of the ‘brush-past’

Geopolitical summits like the G20 are saturated in symbolism and double-meanings – so even if you’re officially shunned, you can always meet away from prying eyes.

vladimir putin david cameron angela merkel summit g20

When’s the last time you had a top-level business meeting in the kitchen?

Sounds odd, but it’s not unheard of for the world’s leaders trying to eke out such a chinwag, away from the glare of cameras and the scribbling on notepads in the most unlikely of settings.

More than a few of these meetings – also known as “brush-pasts” – are lined up for the G20 summit in Australia, where Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, at least had the decency to berate Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in the public gaze.

‘What do you mean you’re busy?’

During their brief official handshake, Mr Harper let slip a few words: “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: you need to get out of Ukraine.”

vladimir putin david cameron angela merkel summit g20

Mr Putin’s spokesman confirmed the remark, but said the Russian president “told him that this is impossible, because they are not there”.

Mr Putin has been on the receiving end of a few snubs over Ukraine in recent months, having previously been lass than supportive of the EU’s position on the Syrian civil war.

The Ukraine crisis led to Russia being left out entirely from the G8 group of nations in March, causing the club to be renamed the G7 for the time being, but is hardly the first country to be left out in the geopolitical cold.

vladimir putin david cameron angela merkel summit g20

US President Barack Obama famously dodged at least five formal meeting requests from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009 after the UK released the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Mr Brown could only grab a few words with the president as he moved through the throng at the UN Security Council, in a rare show of restrained hostility between two famous allies.

But catching a quick chat “in the sidelines” of a conference – as the habit is also well known in reality, as well as political fiction like the West Wing – can sometimes backfire.

Careful who you talk to

As then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw found out in 2004, when he was ushered along to a delegation to shake hands with disgraced Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe at the UN, withdrawing awkwardly almost as soon as he realised his mistake.

vladimir putin david cameron angela merkel summit g20

Mr Straw defended the fleeting exchange of pleasantries, implying he did not know who he was meeting in a “dark corner” – but also said the disagreement between the two countries would not justify being “discourteous or rude”.

Back at the G20, Mr Putin has already met up with British Prime Minister David Cameron in one of those subtly arranged rendez vous, receiving a warning of further European sanctions if he doesn’t do more to alleviate the bloodshed in Ukraine.

But perhaps the more important “impromptu” meeting will be between Mr Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as Europe piles the pressure onto its stubbornly interventionist neighbour.

The meeting may not be quite as observable as their encounter at the World Cup finals in July, as Mrs Merkel prepared to watch Germany take on the Netherlands in the momentous finale.

vladimir putin david cameron angela merkel summit g20

But the globe’s top leaders can’t exactly pop out for pint to iron out their latest spat, meaning these bizarre forms of diplomacy are likely to remain essential for basic interactions on the big topics.

Which only leaves one question – will the leaders of Germany and Russia reserve a quiet spot between the mayonnaise and the spice rack to air their latest grievances and denials?

Perhaps we’ll never know, which means you might only get to see the weirdest of diplomatic practices come to life in the West Wing…