When President Obama meets his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Monday, he’ll do so in a setting where the U.S. flag stands next to that of Russia — a small but significant feature of protocol that signals the importance of the conversation.
It’s a stark contrast from the fleeting exchanges the two leaders have had on the sidelines of other world summits in recent months, when they have mused coldly about the scenery and exchanged not-so-pleasant pleasantries.
It’s all part of the delicate dance of diplomacy, an especially difficult choreography at this annual gathering of world leaders during which the demand for face time with the U.S. president far outstrips what’s available.
The United Nations General Assembly meeting is “always a time for us to get a lot of business done,” said one senior advisor involved in planning Obama’s schedule, “and this year we have a lot of business to tend to.”
As a result, there will be several “bilateral engagements” as well as lots of contact on the sidelines, the advisor said. Obama’s staff has been working out every detail, including who will go up the escalator or down the elevator with the president.
“We have to seize every moment,” said the advisor, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the arrangements.
Leaders of favorable standing and high currency get the most time. On Monday, for example, Obama sat down with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who could provide a huge assist to the president as he attempts to pump up the global alliance against climate change.
Also on that list was U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who embodies the principle of international engagement that Obama wants to highlight this week.
(Of course, Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping will have spent even more time with Obama as they were invited to the White House in the run-up to the U.N. gathering.)
Cuban President Raul Castro’s meeting with the president on Tuesday — which will also involve the posting of national flags — speaks to Obama’s desire to underscore the progress made in diplomatic relations over the last year, especially the fruits of engagement.
A meeting gives Obama the chance to laud the warming of relations between the two countries, while emphasizing that if Cuba’s human rights record doesn’t improve, the U.S. won’t lift its trade embargo on the island nation.
The meeting with Putin, however, serves as a reminder that the U.S. president isn’t calling all the shots.
Obama has been keeping Putin at arm’s length because of their differences over the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Russia’s military buildup in Syria. But the Russian delegation requested the meeting and, given all that’s at stake, Obama’s advisors thought it best to hear him out.
It won’t take place during a “family photo” or in a hallway either. This encounter will have all the trappings and status of a full bilateral meeting.
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