Believers in international cooperation need to be optimists. It takes faith and patience to endure the endless conferences, committees and communiques that make up multilateral diplomacy. But even upbeat advocates of global governance are liable to feel gloomy about the prospects for two major meetings scheduled for next month. The first is the annual G-20 summit, to be hosted by Russia in St. Petersburg on Sept. 5-6. The second is the gathering of world leaders for the opening of the new session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York beginning Sept. 24. Both events are more likely to highlight the limits of multilateralism than its benefits, and the G-20 summit could prove to be an especially excruciating affair.
The world’s press will descend on St. Petersburg on high alert for signs of tensions between the U.S. and Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama has canceled bilateral talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, citing the latter’s decision to offer asylum to intelligence leaker Edward Snowden. Obama announced that the G-20 meeting was too important to miss, but he has been deeply critical of Russia’s handling of the Syrian conflict and its new anti-gay legislation. Putin, whose lack of rapport with Obama is now notorious, may not be able to refrain from trying to embarrass his guest. Putin could raise the Snowden affair or, even more cruelly, compare Washington’s recent equivocations over the Egyptian crisis to its hard line on Syria.
Obama will at least take comfort from the fact that he won’t have to see the Russian leader again in New York. Putin is giving the opening of the General Assembly a miss. This is not especially surprising, as he also failed to attend last year. Perhaps more tellingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping will be absent too, passing on his first opportunity to address the U.N. since he replaced Hu Jintao. This may signal the low priority that Beijing places on U.N. affairs (by contrast, Xi is planning to make it to St. Petersburg). But other significant leaders are staying away from the General Assembly as well.