What is it like to meet on the sidelines of G8
June 16, 2013 12:13 AM   Subscribe

I have heard on the news that Obama and Putin are planning to meet "on the sidelines" of the G8 conference next week, and I'm curious what, exactly, this is like.

I'm just curious about how this works:
--would it be a very structured meeting?
--is it a ritualized exchange of talking points prepared by aides, or might it be a genuinely frank and candid exchange?
--when these meetings take place amid tensions between the participants, is it likely that these tensions will be acknowledged and discussed?
--who else might be present at such a meeting?
--how much preparation would Obama and Putin, personally, be expected to put in before the meeting? Is it a "review a memo fifteen minutes before it starts," or a "cramming with briefing books for days" scenario?
--what else can be known, from a human/practical perspective about one on one meetings of this nature between world leaders?
posted by Unified Theory to Law & Government (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
These "bilaterals" (or occasionally trilaterals) as they are known, are pretty standard accessories to major multilateral meetings like G8 or G20 or NATO or European Councils, etc.. They happen when the 2 (or 3, etc.) participants need to meet and talk something over which doesn't concern all the other participants, and a major-sized meeting just happens to be scheduled, so they can save a lot of travel, logistics, agenda-juggling. They are usually set up by the sherpas at quite short notice, and will be structured only in the sense that the party making the suggestion will say what's on the agenda so that the other party can accept or not, and also stipulate whether any other subjects may be introduced or not. There will certainly be talking points and background material prepared by aides, but it's up to the participant whether he/she wants to use them or wing it. Probably at least two-three aides per side, plus one or two translators if necessary (when they're really necessary, nobody trusts the other guy's translator, so they'll being their own). Probably a "review a memo fifteen minutes before it starts" scenario. As for what else can be known - just as much as the participants decide to tell the lobby (UK-speak for the embedded media who always travel with the leaders). With bilaterals there's rarely enough time to work out an agreed joint statement, unlike the main meetings, where the joint statements are largely drafted in advance and merely tweaked to reflect any unexpected developments during the meetings.
posted by aqsakal at 8:35 AM on June 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

They are usually set up by the sherpas at quite short notice

I don't know anything about these things either. Who are the "sherpas" fostering these interactions—aides? People already involved in scheduling the larger meeting? What level of people would these be?
posted by limeonaire at 10:00 PM on June 16, 2013

Sherpas are people who help climbers get to summits.

With the regularity of especially the G8 meetings, it's become important to make sure that things get accomplished, and that means that there are aides, liaisons, planners, logistics specialists, and the like who are essentially working out the details months in advance. When the actual summit takes place it's more a matter of moving the chess pieces ... er, world leaders ... from space to space. The level of involvement depends on the importance of the meeting, but generally the sherpas are lower-level people who are not widely known. If there are thorny issues at stake (say, Syria) then appropriate top-level people might be taking more of an interest, but at other times, the entire affair may be of secondary importance to one government or another and they pass nearly everything off to the functionaries.

There's a very important subtext here to the sideline meetings. One of the problems with summits is the expectations game. If Putin and Obama were to plan their own summit, then you have to decide whose turn and whose turf, for starters, and the press start to build up expectations about whatever obstacles the summiteers are likely to face and what grand agreements might come out of it. A sideline meeting has much less of this as they can always just shrug it off as checking boxes, keeping communication lines open, and so forth.

I think preparation and content are very much at the mercy of the participants and their personal styles. Obama is, of course, a cagey sort, likely to prepare in detail, and seek some sort of cooperative compromise; Putin is a much move lively and unpredictable bull in a china shop and likes to think he has outfoxed someone. So that figures into it. You sometimes have leaders where circumstance or rare gifts of interpersonal skills mean that the "agenda" becomes a mere footnote. The non-detail-oriented Bush met with Putin and declared he'd "looked into his soul". The magnetic, effacing Reagan made close associations with leaders like Thatcher and Gorbachev key bulwarks of his foreign policy.

Ultimately we have much more normalized relations between the US and Russia right now, the only possible better time having been when we were backing Yeltsin and his less-secure government. Not that we don't have differences, but we have a lot of things that are hammered into trade agreements and the like and a lot more bilateral communication, so it becomes less a game of trust than just conducting business.

The two are highly likely to discuss Security Council issues regarding Syria in particular. A lot of work over the last couple of decades could go south in a hurry if we end up on opposite sides of a shooting war. Neither side really wants that, of course, but the question is how far that can go.
posted by dhartung at 3:42 AM on June 17, 2013

Oh, and if you want my unfettered opinion here, Obama is really playing it oblique with all the talk about Northern Ireland. This summit isn't there because NI is in crisis; it's there to emphasize how far NI has come. By playing up his Irish roots, rhetoric, and peacemaker ideals, he's looking for a juicy plum of a PR win, one that is virtually of no importance whatsoever. This helps him with his slight domestic imbroglio, and it also helps him lower the need and expectations for any other summit-related business.
posted by dhartung at 3:48 AM on June 17, 2013

I know what sherpas are in a mountain-climbing context, but it would be interesting to know in more detail, as the OP was asking, who these people are. What is an example title, for instance, of someone who would be present at these meetings and/or behind the scenes in making them happen? That's what I was asking.
posted by limeonaire at 9:26 PM on June 24, 2013

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