Summit doubleheader short on surprises

May 22, 2012

ANNE GEARAN, Associated Press

A long weekend of economic and security summits was heavy on stagecraft and light on surprises.

The Group of Eight gathering in Camp David, Md., and the larger gathering of NATO leaders in Chicago yielded agreements worked out in advance and already made public. Lengthy statements summing up the summit to-do lists were largely written before the leaders arrived.

Although the gatherings occurred in the midst of a European financial crisis and looming threats in Syria, North Korea and Iran, any meaty discussions or disagreements took place out of earshot of the news media.

President Barack Obama, host for both events, came away with no unexpected accomplishments apart from concluding the gatherings without major mishap. There were no private conversations inconveniently picked up by an open microphone or tales of drunken romps with prostitutes by Obama's Secret Service officers, as happened at the last two international gatherings Obama attended.

In the custom of such assemblies, however, just having the meetings at all counts as a plus.

World leaders get a splashy moment to draw attention to important issues that often get short shrift in other settings, and they can take one another's measure. They can apply subtle pressure in public on areas where they disagree, and sometimes talk tough in private.

That was the case at Camp David, where other leaders made sure Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev heard the rising outrage over violence in Syria, a Russian ally. Likewise in Chicago, Obama pointedly said Russia should drop its objections to NATO's planned missile defense shield for Europe.

On the two most important issues at hand — the economy and Afghanistan — even the bland statements of agreement on what to do next convey shared purpose.

A problem for Obama is that whatever its merit, such diplomacy takes time and is a distraction from his re-election campaign.

Foreign policy is a cornerstone of being president. But it does not get you re-elected — not in this economy.

Obama, like his Republican presidential challenger, Mitt Romney, would prefer to keep his public focus on creating jobs and helping consumers pay their bills because those basic domestic problems are also his re-election problem.

Every political observer, and that includes Obama himself, says the election will turn on the economy.

The calendar, though, is loaded with summits that demand his presence (although he is planning to bail on this year's Asia-Pacific forum in Russia because it falls during his party's political convention in September.)

Obama was just months on the job when he found himself attending so many world forums that he joked of having a condition called "summititis."

The forums do matter. They give world leaders the chance to speak with one voice in trying to rescue the economy and heap pressure on rogue nations, although in doing so, the final declarations must often be watered down to please all.

And so Obama emerged from the G-8 gathering of rich and powerful nations with the ability to say there is an "emerging consensus" that Europe's governments have to take actions to spur growth, not just cut their way out of reducing debt. Tellingly, he used that moment to offer a campaign-sounding message for his economic vision for his own nation.

And he was able to stand up in Chicago and say there is a firm path to ending the Afghanistan war.

Yet there was little hard news, or specific details.

It was more about securing broad direction and avoiding screw-ups.

Obama's political advisers privately groan about so much mandatory maintenance on the world stage.

It's hard to blast Romney when the setting calls for statesmanship, although a reporter's question at the close of the NATO summit gave Obama the chance to do that, and he jumped on it. The president has one more summit to go this year, the G-20 gathering of rich and developing nations next month, before his itinerary is clear to govern and campaign.

At NATO, Obama and leaders around the globe locked in place an Afghanistan exit path that will still keep their troops fighting and dying there for two more years, acknowledging there never will be a point where everything is perfect.

Obama, presiding over a 50-nation war coalition summit in his hometown, summed up the mood of all the nations by saying the Afghanistan that will be left behind will be stable enough for them to depart — good enough after a decade of war — but still loaded with troubles.

"I don't think there's ever going to be an optimal point where we say: 'This is all done. This is perfect. This is just the way we wanted it,'" Obama said as the NATO summit closed. "This is a process, and it's sometimes a messy process."

Obama never spoke of victory.

At Camp David, Obama and leaders from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia were trying to calm the economic waters and perhaps the oil markets with a display of unity. They agreed that ailing Greece should remain a part of Europe's common currency, but conceded that there is no single prescription to stop Europe's economic troubles from multiplying and spreading around the world.

"The global recovery shows signs of promise, but significant headwinds persist," a joint statement said.

The summit was a get-acquainted session too, as such international meetings often are. This one was the first G-8 meeting for French President Francois Hollande, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. In what has been widely viewed as a snub, Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped the G-8 meeting, sending Medvedev in his place.

Obama chose the secluded Camp David setting in part to give leaders a chance for an intimate and freewheeling discussion out of sight of most media and far from the raucous protests that have accompanied previous meetings of the G-8. Obama and his counterparts emerged briefly at midday for a group photo, one of the set pieces of international summitry.

"Everybody give them one wave," Obama instructed the assembled leaders as they lined up for their official photo. "Let's look happy."