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September 04, 2013

Beware the G-20 Summit Syria Freak-Out
Posted by David Shorr

782291274ST. PETERSBURG - For the next 24-48 hours, there will be a lot of breathless stories about the G-20 summit here being swamped by controversy over what to do about Syria. You might want to add a few grains of salt before consuming. 

It's true that the Syria war is quite off-topic for the G-20 -- the main focus of which is the health of the global economy -- and that world leaders can hardly avoid the subject. But in all likelihood they will handle the matter with great caution, and with minimal disruption to the existing G-20 agenda and role.

A few things to bear in mind. First, recall that when President Obama cancelled his bilateral Moscow summit with President Putin, he made a point of confirming his attendance at the G-20 conclave. His reason: the importance of continued cooperation on the global economy. Second, even if the G-20 had a clear role or mechanism to handle international security crises, the gap dividing the key players is too wide for them to take collective action. It's hard to see how a public display of diplomatic rancor would benefit any of the leaders.  

Then to bring it down to a practical level, ask yourself what kind of communique would be issued from a summit that became unmoored from the agenda presidential advisers developed for the past year and wrapped around the axle of the world's most sensitive current issue. Actually the question of the communique is a good departure point to imagine potential scenarios, from likeliest to improbable:

1. Syria is discussed more in the summit's margins than in the plenary sessions with all the leaders, and the communique includes brief and bland language on the subject. Regardless of how much (or little) consensus is reached, Syria will be Topic A for most of the discussions outside the main meeting room. If Obama and Putin remain sharply at odds, for instance, each will be pressing hard to gain the sympathy and support of the other leaders. In this regard, it's notable that G-20 foreign ministers have been invited to St. Petersburg (it's typically a finance ministers' show). 

2. The Syria crisis is embraced as a summit topic and communique language reflects substantive agreement or differences (or both). It could happen. As professional politicians, the G-20 leaders feel a strong need to remain relevant to world events and the daily news cycle. It's conceivable, then, that the communique gives at least a barometer of attitudes toward the Syria crisis. In that event, media parsing of the result will be worth watching. Then again, do we really envision Putin playing the consensus-building facilitator for the group? Quite a delicate task for a leader who has thus far staked a pretty strong position. But who knows, stranger things have happened. One more caveat here, there could be extensive discussion of Syria but minimal language due to lack of agreement.

3. The St. Petersburg summit turns out to be a watershed for unified collective action on Syria. As I say, the leaders must be feeling the tug of relevance and the pressure of an awful situation that doesn't reflect very well on them. We've seen vague signs of new flexibility from President Putin but that could be merely an attempt to lower the temperature. And even if there is some sort of diplomatic breakthrough, it won't be conclusive multilaterally -- never mind for the crisis itself. Since the G-20 simply doesn't have a mechanism to deal with such situations, this meeting could only tee things up for another multilateral venue, most likely the UN Security Council.

4. A full and frank exchange of views (as they say). What if the summit host decides to raise the temperature, rather than lower it? It would certainly be an odd choice, given that leaders usually volunteer themselves as hosts to make themselves look statesman-like. In the scenario of a rancorous full and frank discussion, the communique would offer little hint of how contentious it really was. For that we'd have to rely on leaks and media coverage.

But I'll make one confident prediction regardless of which scenario emerges: the summit agenda that took shape before Syria worsened will remain largely intact. For a broad variety of issues -- from financial regulation to infrastructure investment, climate change financing and food security -- a whole series of steps and agreements have been crafted by G-20 counterparts at all levels of government. For that matter, the current G-20 agenda is the result of the past five years of the forum's evolution. And perhaps that is the key point: multilateral cooperation is a patient and steady endeavor.

Photo: Russia G20 Host Photo Agency

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