Obama-Putin meeting at G-20 in Mexico (video of joint press conference and transcript of related news conference)—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #55 (June 19)

Updated September 9, 2012

Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin held a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Los Cabos, Baja California, Mexico. A video of the joint press conference (with consecutive interpretation) which they held afterwards is found on YouTube here. The White House video is found here. A transcript of the joint press conference is found here.

The transcript of a separate news conference in which Ben Rhodes (Deputy National Security Advisor to the President for Strategic Communications), Lael Brainard (Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs), and Mike McFaul (U.S. Ambassador to Russia) participated is found here.  The latter makes for interesting reading.

There wasn’t much evidence of substantive agreement on Syria at the meeting, but it sounds like the two leaders had a chance to have a full discussion of how each of them sees the Syria question, within the framework of what Rhodes and McFaul see as a broad U.S.-Russian relationship that is moving in a positive direction.

A number of questions from journalists focused on the body language between the two presidents during their joint news conference, including the fact that they were not looking at each other that much.

The Observer would make two observations. First, after what was undoubtedly a very intense conversation of two hours’s duration, both leaders appeared a bit tense and somewhat tired.

Second, the fact they weren’t in eye contact that much may be partly the result of the fact that they were speaking to each other through interpreters, using consecutive interpretation. In these situations, there is a natural tendency to look at the interpreter as if one were speaking to him, which in a sense is true. (Obama did this, Putin did not.) Only the most skilled of diplomats and others accustomed to using interpreters have mastered the skill of looking at their interlocutor while speaking, and while listening as the other person or his interpreter speaks.

Obama doesn’t seem to have mastered this skill.  He could work on it, and  probably improve his communication with foreign leaders if he makes significant progress.

Putin looked at Obama when he spoke, but without staring.  Putin knows English. Obama was fixing his gaze quite intently on Putin as the latter spoke.  When Obama spoke, he spoke to the interpreter or looked in front of himself, not at Putin.  This produced something of a disconnect with Putin.  There may have been some important cultural differences in the nature of eye contact at play.

Also, Obama gave Putin a friendly little pat on the back as they said goodbye.  This is the president’s style.  How Putin reacted, if at all, is unknown.

It’s difficult to read, but it is also possible that Obama was a bit angry during the course of the press conference.

Still, their body language did not appear to be overtly hostile. At the end of the meeting, you can see a flash of a genuine smile from Putin as they shake hands and discuss future bilateral summits.

UPDATE (September 9, 2012)

For a more expert opinion on Obama’s and Putin’s body language in the press conference, see Dr. G. Jack Brown, “Body Language Success– Nonverbal Communication Analysis # 1889: Vladimir Putin & Barack Obama at the G-20,” June 18, 2012.

Dr. Brown misses the point about the use of interpreters affecting the eye contact of Obama with Putin, presumably due to less experience, but he accurately analyzes the meaning and impact of Obama’s characteristic pat on the arm or back.

See also Jeff Tompson, “Beyond Words–The science and fun of nonverbal communication: Presidents Obama & Putin: Body Language Recap; Lots of nonverbal communication provided by each to decode,” Psychology Today, June 18, 2012.

With repect to progress on the substance of the Syria question, not much was to be seen at their joint press conference or to be read in the transcript of the press conference Rhodes and McFaul led afterwards.

But at least they talked, and listened to each other, and agreed to keep talking. Given Obama’s prior decisions not to consider military intervention in Syria, this was perhaps all that could be reasonably expected at this meeting. In this sense, a non-confrontational meeting may be counted as a success, and may have helped to lay the basis for more constructive meetings in the future. We won’t know until reliable accounts appear of what actually happened in their private meeting.

Obama is obviously trying to frame Syria within the broader context of U.S.-Russian relations in general. That is an intelligent approach.

Whether it is sufficient to halt the civil war in Syria is a separate question.

The Trenchant Observer


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