With the fate of his plans to strike Syria for allegedly poisoning its own people in the hands of Congress, President Barack Obama leaves Washington today for a trip that will include a two-day summit with fellow leaders in St Petersburg. If Capitol Hill makes him nervous, wait until he gets to Russia.
While the summit of the Group of 20 leading and emerging nations that opens on Thursday theoretically has a broad agenda that includes the fragile world economy and financial regulation, two things are certain to dominate: what to do about Syria and the fraught relations between the world’s superpowers.
The abrupt decision by President Obama to stand back from Syrian strikes, pending a debate in Congress, has had the effect of creating space for the G20 to engineer some alternative to intervention. According to the most optimistic script, that would involve launching an internationally backed effort to bring about a peaceful political transition in Syria to a future without Bashar al-Assad. To this, Russia and China would have finally to agree.
Expectations for such an outcome are necessarily extremely low. First it would require the Russians, in particular, publicly to buy the evidence the US says it has of Syrian guilt. It also assumes that the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, would not take advantage of Mr Obama’s seeming loneliness at home and internationally to wound him.
At the G8 in Northern Ireland earlier this year, there was a ganging up against Mr Putin for his support of Assad. That hardly seems to have been helpful. Mr Obama’s best hope this time may be that he doesn’t become the target of ruthless mockery by the Russians.