The strange things that happen at summits
- 29 May 2012
- From the section Magazine
International summits are where many important decisions in global politics are made but it's a strange world, writes Jonathan Powell.
G8, G20, Nato and of course the endless EU. There are more summits than ever before.
When I accompanied Tony Blair to them I was constantly struck by the protocol.
Planes land at the airport in protocol order. Cars are dispatched in order of seniority.
Sometimes the timetable slips and you find yourself being driven round and round the same square in Brussels in order to kill time.
After arriving in their swish motorcades and delivering a few trenchant words to the waiting press, leaders are swept inside.
As they are ushered into the conference room the television cameras circle around, trying to see which leaders greet each other warmly and who gives whom the cold shoulder.
"You have to be a good kisser in foreign policy," former Foreign Secretary David Miliband explains.
It is certainly true that the mood in the room can affect the decisions for good and ill.
Skilful operators will assess their opponents to see who is weary, who is hungry, who is distracted, and who is bored, and play it to their own advantage.
I used to wonder why summits, especially in Europe, have to run until three in the morning.
Some of it is down to the complexity of the issues under discussion, but a good deal is down to politics.
If at 3am the decision goes against you, it allows you to look your electorate in the eye and tell them that you fought till the very end.
Sometimes the lateness of the hour, and the strain of taking major decisions, leads to some spectacular outburst of rudeness.
I still remember French President Jacques Chirac commenting laconically after a Finnish foreign minister had finished a particularly boring intervention that he had missed a good opportunity to shut up. Or later sneering at the country's claim to host a European Food Agency meeting because they ate reindeer.
Indeed, food at summits is incredibly important.
When Chancellor Helmut Kohl was leader of Germany, opponents used the fact that he was often hungry to bring tortuous European negotiations to a head.
And at one European council in Luxembourg, former Prime Minister John Major, a keen fan of hamburgers, insisted that some should be delivered for the exhausted British delegation.
Douglas Hurd, foreign secretary in Major's government, eyed the burger suspiciously and handled it as though he had never seen one before.
Who sits next to whom also plays a big part in the success or otherwise of summits.
The English alphabet usually ensures that United Kingdom sits close to United States, but that was before organisations like Nato expanded to include relationships with Ukraine.
"President Kuchma of Ukraine was definitely out of favour with the Americans and the British, but was by virtue of the alphabet going to be sitting with Tony Blair and George Bush," recalls Lord Robertson, former Nato secretary general.
This diplomatic headache required some sleight of hand in the seating arrangements, according to Robertson.
"In a flash of inspiration in the shower one morning as I tangled with the dilemma, I decided that I would actually seat the table according to the second language of Nato, which is French.
"And that meant that Tony Blair was sitting beside Romania as Royaume-Uni and George Bush was sitting beside Estonia because it was Les Etats-Unis and President Kuchma was sitting on his own," says Robertson.
But in a world of Skype and teleconferencing why do world leaders still jet around the world to meet each other face to face? Couldn't their business be done on conference calls?
Increasingly, politicians are in contact with their fellows in other countries via text and email but Robertson believes that nothing compares to meeting face to face.
"There isn't a technology yet invented that is a substitute for human beings talking to human beings and finding common solutions," he says.
Lord Carrington, Margaret Thatcher's first foreign secretary, told me: "I've never been really quite sure about summits. I think, in the end, the really important things are decided on national interest, rather on whether Fred gets on with Joe."