Summit-time blues

The coming season of grand international summits means the problems of the Eurozone will once again be thrust upon the global stage. But at least this time European leaders don't have to worry about Silvio Berlusconi.  

The coming season of grand international summits means the problems of the Eurozone will once again be thrust upon the global stage. But at least this time European leaders don't have to worry about Silvio Berlusconi.

It’s international summitry season. In May, NATO’s leaders will gather in Chicago. Some of them are also attending a G8 meeting in Camp David beforehand. And there’s the G20 summit in Mexico and a grand United Nations conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro. Stand by for a long stream of “family photos” with David, Angela and Barack grinning at the cameras – though Nicolas may be missing.

For most politicians, summits are a mixed blessing. Strutting on the world stage is good for the ego, but a distraction from domestic concerns. One leader who is said to dislike all the summit flummery is President Obama.  And while he’ll be playing host to NATO and the G8, he may wish he didn’t have to.

Obama is now switching into full-bore campaign mode ahead of November’s elections.  In theory, the Chicago and Camp David summits should be helpful. The Obama campaign has concluded that foreign policy is one of its strengths, so the chance to play leader of the free world in the Windy City is a boost.

But three problems are looming. Firstly, the Syrian crisis threatens to overshadow the NATO summit. The Alliance can celebrate victory in Libya (and the beginning of the end in Afghanistan) but if there are atrocities in Homs or Damascus during the Chicago Summit, it will give Obama’s foes easy ammunition.

It isn’t just President Assad who could spoil the party. The Taliban could unleash raids in Kabul to coincide with the summit. North Korea could carry out a widely-expected nuclear test to spite Obama.

Then there’s the Putin problem. Russia’s “new” leader will make his first major appearance on the diplomatic stage at the G8. Putin has been trying to sound conciliatory since re-winning the presidency, but his mere presence will be a gift to those Republicans who believe Obama has been soft on Russia, developing a close relationship with Dmitri Medvedev in the vain hope that Putin could be sidelined.

Administration officials point out that they have actually got a lot out of Russia in recent years: a new arms control agreement and Moscow’s help in getting military supplies to Afghanistan top the list. Vice-President Joe Biden used a recent speech in New York to launch an all-out defence of Obama’s Russian policy and accuse Mitt Romney of wanting to restart the Cold War. But it won’t be hard for Romney’s team to exploit Putin’s visit. Watch out for lots of images of Republicans embracing Russian dissidents.

But Syria and Russia may not be the Obama team’s biggest headaches. That prize probably goes to Europe. With the Eurozone back at the brink of a major crisis, it’s possible that the NATO, G8 and G20 conclaves will all swivel to focus on the fate of the single currency. After all, the euro crisis overshadowed both the last major NATO meeting (in Lisbon in 2010) and the 2011 G20 Cannes summit.

The Cannes debacle was horrible for European leaders and President Obama alike. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy spent much of the meeting trying to impose some discipline on the Italians and Greeks in the margins of the summit. Proposals for a G20-backed Eurozone bailout fell apart. Obama took a relatively peripheral role, admitting as he headed home that he’d received a crash course in EU politics. 

A repeat performance could be disastrous for the President. US pundits agree that the one thing that would be fatal for his re-election campaign would be the intensification of the Eurozone crisis, which would feed back catastrophically into the US recovery. Mitt Romney has repeatedly accused Obama of admiring Europe to a dangerous degree (although, as Tom Wright of the Brookings Institution observes, Romney’s economic strategy is actually rather close to Angela Merkel’s preference for deep austerity). 

If Obama finds himself struggling to call squabbling Eurozone leaders to order in Chicago – or trying to fix the crisis through the G20 in Mexico – the Republicans will have an easy story to tell. Here, they will say, is a Europhile American President who can’t even stop those Euro-weenies endangering US jobs.

However much Mitt Romney may revel in such rhetoric now, however, he should be painfully aware that he may face a similar fate if he wins the presidency in November. If the EU is on the verge of a political civil war over economic austerity and growth, it will be very hard for any US president to intervene. It’s hard to imagine François Hollande taking economic lessons from Mr. Romney, even if he loves France.

For now, however, it is Barack Obama who will have to navigate his way between Presidents Putin and Hollande (barring a surprise Sarkozy comeback). Still, there are a few consolations. At last the Americans can meet with the Europeans without wondering what surprises Silvio Berlusconi has ready.

This op-ed first appeared in E!Sharp

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.