Syria Expected To Dominate G-20 Sideline Talks
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And I'm Renee Montagne. The Cold War rivalry is not what it used to be. Still, it is likely to be awkward as the leaders of the U.S. and Russia meet this week. President Obama is among those attending a summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the heads of the world's biggest economies. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the host.
The war in Syria is just one of the issues that divide the two men. It's not the formal agenda, but is sure to come up on the sidelines. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Obama had already canceled a planned one-on-one meeting with Putin even before the latest escalation in Syria. The White House says no formal sit-down with the Russian leader is planned during the G-20, though the two men are expected to chat either before or after some of the general sessions.
U.S.-Russian relations have deteriorated since the beginning of Obama's term, when he negotiated a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Putin's predecessor and won Russia's help in transporting supplies into Afghanistan. Russia ignored Obama's push this summer for a new round of arms reductions. Obama, in turn, was angered when Russia granted political asylum to accused NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We've kind of hit a wall, in terms of additional progress. But I have not written off the idea that the United States and Russia are going to continue to have common interests, even as we have some very profound differences on some other issues.
HORSLEY: One profound area of difference is Syria. Russia is a longtime ally of Syria's, and has blocked the United Nations from authorizing a military response to last month's chemical weapons attack. Obama says he's comfortable striking Syria without a U.N. OK. That would surely antagonize Russia even more. Obama will also register his opposition to Russia's new, anti-gay legislation by meeting with gay activists while in St. Petersburg.
While he's not meeting privately with Putin this week, Obama does have meetings scheduled with French President Francois Hollande - a staunch U.S. ally in the Syrian conflict - as well as the leaders of China and Japan. Those meetings will come in between the G-20's general sessions. Matthew Goodman, a former White House aide who's helped organize G-20s in the past, say they do serve a valuable purpose.
MATTHEW GOODMAN: It's the only forum in which the leaders of countries that represent 85 percent of the global economy can get together and broadly set the agenda for the global economy.
HORSLEY: At previous G-20 meetings, leaders have wrestled with one economic crisis after another. Heather Conley, who directs the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this year leaders will have a little more breathing room.
HEATHER CONLEY: This will be one of the first G-20 conversations where the euro crisis is not - very much front and center.
HORSLEY: While Europe is slowly coming out of its own long recession, the U.S. economy continues to show modest gains. Both the unemployment rate and the federal deficit have been shrinking, though Obama told reporters in Sweden yesterday the improvement is not good enough.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
OBAMA: As I head into the G-20, I shared my view that here in Europe and around the world, we've got to stay focused on creating jobs and growth.
HORSLEY: Leaders are expected to discuss efforts to boost domestic demand in countries around the world as well as international trade. The U.S. is pursing two, big free-trade agreements: one spanning the Pacific Ocean; the other, the Atlantic. In Stockholm yesterday, Swedish Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt said trade's been the foundation of his country's prosperity.
PRIME MINISTER FREDERIK REINFELDT: Sweden strongly supports open trade regimes and in particular, a free-trade agreement now being negotiated between the European Union and the United States.
HORSLEY: The communique - issued after this week's meeting - will also address ongoing efforts to improve financial regulations and reduce the incentives for tax evasion. As a longtime observer both inside and outside these meetings, Matthew Goodman says it's a slow process.
GOODMAN: I'd be surprised if there were any dramatic breakthroughs on anything. But a lot of this is about the conversation, and trying to get people on the same page and moving in the same direction on global economic and financial issues.
HORSLEY: But even as leaders try to focus on the same page, describing current account deficits and financial regulations, their attention is likely to be drawn away by the blaring headlines about chemical weapons - and a possible retaliatory strike.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, St. Petersburg, Russia.