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Cameras off: G7 summit announces return of in-person diplomacy

PLYMOUTH, England – Call it the much loved death of Zoom diplomacy.

President Biden and six leaders of the world’s richest countries meet – face to face – in a picturesque seaside resort in Cornwall, on England’s southwest coast. This is the first in-person global summit meeting since the coronavirus pandemic halted travel and forced presidents and prime ministers to press the ‘raise their hands’ button, like everyone else.

So far, proximity seems to work in favor of cooperation.

Summit meetings are always full of prepackaged “deliverables,” but stage management always works best when there is an actual stage. As Friday’s summit opened, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who not only hosted the rally but drew most of the royals to an official dinner, announced that the Group of 7 Nations would collectively donate one billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine to the developing world.

It was a very conscious effort to show that the world’s richest democracies can catch up with China’s efforts to establish itself as a leader in the fight against the coronavirus. The G7 pledge includes Mr Biden’s pledge to deliver 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

But as the leaders gathered in hastily constructed meeting rooms just yards from a sandy shore, they were keenly aware that beyond the humanitarian gesture lay a great geopolitical movement, as more than 260 million doses of Chinese Covid-19 vaccine have been sent to 95 countries, according to Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based consulting firm.

Executives meeting at Carbis Bay in Cornwall also accepted, at least in concept, Mr Biden’s proposal for a minimum 15% global tax to prevent businesses from engaging in a race to the bottom of the tax burden. . And the group appears poised to unanimously adopt stricter emissions targets ahead of a major climate change summit this year.

But the real sign that in-person diplomacy is back was Friday’s dinner, with many royalty, from Queen Elizabeth to Prince Charles, Prince William and Kate Middleton, who earlier today met the first lady, Jill Biden, in a British school. They dined at the Eden Project, an environmental charity that features rainforests covered by several large biomes along the shores of Cornwell.

It was balm for Mr Biden, who loved nothing more than traveling the world as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then as vice chairman – a man who actually enjoyed walking the halls of the famous Bayerischer Hof hotel, where Munich’s security conference is held every year. We saw him, with both hands on the shoulder of a diplomat, asserting his point of view, persuading, posing for photos.

Then these trips all came to a screeching halt. He campaigned from his basement. Once elected, his assistants had strict rules that no more than five people could be in a White House office at a time. Four months ago, Mr Biden held his first work-from-home meeting with a world leader, conferring with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada on the only viable way during a pandemic: a video call from the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Other Zoom calls followed: a virtual meeting of a group known as Quad, which includes the president, as well as leaders from Australia, India and Japan; then a world climate summit “hosted” by Mr. Biden but conducted in “Brady Bunch” style, with leaders stacked in video squares on large screens.

He tiptoed into genuine human visits, inviting Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan, and then President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, to the White House for brief visits. (Chancellor Angela Merkel is next, the White House said on Friday, coming for a farewell visit on July 15, just before she leaves office.)

This week, the one-on-one meetings ended.

Mr. Biden crossed the Atlantic for an eight-day in-person round of global backslapping and private showdowns. On Friday, he attended the first day of a Group of 7 meeting with the leaders of the world’s richest nations. This is followed by a full meeting of NATO and European Union leaders, before the main event of the trip: a face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

“I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the importance of face-to-face diplomacy,” said Madeleine Albright, who served as Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton.

“On the Zoom, you have no idea their movements and how they sit and various things that show what type of person you’re dealing with,” she said. “You can’t judge what’s on their minds.” (The Munich conference, she noted, is “a perfect setting for him,” in reference to Mr Biden.)

Richard Haass, longtime diplomat and chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that face-to-face meetings are better than the alternative. “I will leave it to others to assess the diplomatic implications of Zoom requiring only that leaders be formally dressed for the waist,” he said.

But Mr Haass cautioned against overreading “face-to-face meetings or personal diplomacy in general”.

“Leaders are motivated by what they see as theirs and the interests of their country,” he said. “Diplomacy is a tool for advancing these interests, not for handing out favors.”

Mr. Haass noted that “a face-to-face meeting can also give a leader too much confidence. Khrushchev was wrong when he concluded his initial meeting with JFK too much and then exaggerated his hand, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe ” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Of course, not all presidents liked a summit like Mr. Biden does. President Barack Obama disliked the endless pomp and ceremony of the official summits he attended during his eight years in the White House, especially the nonsubstantial moments like the “family photo” where world leaders stand. steep side by side as photographers take their photos. blows. (There was one by the water on Friday.)

And there is always the possibility that a meeting could turn leaders against each other, as President Donald J. Trump has proven during his tenure.

His presence at global meetings, including the G7, caused consternation and confrontation as he faced off against allies of the United States. At the G7 in Quebec City in 2018, Mr. Trump refused to sign the leaders’ declaration, called Mr. Trudeau “very dishonest and weak” and was grumpy throughout – as shown in a photo showing him, his hands crossed on the chest, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaning over a table with the other leaders standing.

But for Mr. Biden, it’s different.

Ms Merkel, Mr Trudeau and other world leaders come to terms with Mr Biden, even though their nations sometimes clash over issues. (Mr. Biden and Ms. Merkel disagree on the need for a Russian gas pipeline; Mr. Trudeau and others are not happy with the president’s stance on trade and tariffs.)

Mr. Biden appeared relaxed and happy in Carbis Bay. As the sun set on Thursday evening, he gave an official speech on the 500 million vaccines, then reappeared, without socks in sneakers with his wife, Jill, at tables outside a small cafe overlooking the waterfront. He made conversation with those who were a little shocked to see him. And the mood was light when the leaders gathered outside for that required photo.

“Everyone in the water,” he said – presumably jokingly.

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