They had shared three meals and a full day around a conference table. The last obstacle to a deal Thursday among world leaders at their economic summit was the contents of a single pair of parentheses.
Debate wore on for an hour as the French and Chinese leaders disagreed over a small detail about how to crack down on tax havens.
Then President Obama pushed back his chair and walked around the table, inviting first France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and then China’s Hu Jintao into a corner for a series of chats. The three ended up shaking hands. Soon after, the meeting gaveled to a close.
For anyone looking for clues in Obama’s first appearance as president on the world stage about his view of his role, it was an illustrative moment.
“It reminded me of what you do when you’re a legislator,” said one senior Obama administration official who saw the scene unfold. “You pull two people into the cloakroom and you all work it out together.”
A few hours later, Obama talked at length with reporters about how he intends to deal with the rest of the world, “forging a consensus instead of dictating our terms,” and working cooperatively with other countries. In contrast with his predecessor, Obama spoke of a complex, changing world of growing nations.
“If it’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, you know, that’s an easier negotiation,” Obama said. “But that’s not the world we live in. And it shouldn’t be the world we live in.”
Today’s world, he acknowledged, is one of rising powers in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
“These are all countries on the move,” he said. “And that’s good. That means there are millions of people, billions of people, who are working their way out of poverty. And over time, that potentially makes this a much more peaceful world.”
Nonetheless, Obama said, the United States retains a role as leader.
“I do not buy into the notion that America can’t lead in the world,” he said. “I just think, in a world that is as complex as it is, that it is very important for us to be able to forge partnerships as opposed to simply dictating solutions.”
Before voicing that viewpoint, though, he acted out some of it in the private meeting with other G-20 leaders at London’s Excel Center, the sprawling arena where the summit took place.
The sticking point was whether to officially recognize a list of tax havens being published by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development as part of an attempt to crack down on those trying to escape taxes.
The U.S. did not have a strong position on the question.
But Sarkozy insisted on recognizing the list. Hu opposed it, reasoning that G-20 members would have no role in formulating it.
Experts say it’s the kind of small dispute that holds up international agreements all the time.
“There was a great deal of back and forth,” the Obama administration official said, speaking about the private meeting on condition of anonymity.
Finally, Obama proposed that, rather than “recognizing” the list, G-20 leaders simply “note” it.
In the language of diplomacy, “noting” the existence of the list may carry less weight than “recognizing” it.
Obama tapped Sarkozy on the shoulder. The two presidents huddled with their economic advisors and interpreters.
When Sarkozy concurred, Obama invited Hu to the corner and asked what he thought.
Within an hour, the other participants looked over to see Obama, Sarkozy and Hu sealing the agreement with handshakes.
The idea that the larger G-20 agreement could be held up by such a small matter is not as odd as it may seem, said Steven Schrage, a Bush administration official who oversaw anti-crime and -terrorism efforts for the Group of 8 nations.
“That sort of thing happens all the time on language like that,” Schrage said. “ ‘Recognizing’ the list means something different from ‘noting’ it, and that can matter a great deal to an individual leader.”
All week, White House staffers said that Obama’s first European trip as president was about “listening and not lecturing.” Elaborating, Obama said, “We exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognize that the world is a complicated place and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries, when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility and recognize that we may not always have the best answer, but we can always encourage the best answer and support the best answer.”