The G20 seating plan: Never mind the stimulus, who sat next to the president?

Posted in Other | 02-Apr-09 | Author: Esther Addley| Source: The Guardian (UK)

G20 leaders pose for the second group photo, at the G20 Summit in the Excel centre in London, Thursday, April 2, 2009.

It was, observers can agree, the only real question of import in the run-up to last night's summit dinner. Some might have concerned themselves with whether Russia and the US would agree a reduction in nuclear weapons, or how the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, and his American counterpart, Barack Obama, would hit it off in their first face-to-face meeting, but experienced diplomats know those are not the encounters that matter. What really counts is who sits next to whom at dinner.

By that measure, the seating plan for last night's banquet at Downing Street for the G20 leaders represented a taut little gavotte of diplomatic musical chairs, with every request for the salt representing a lavish favour or small slight with potentially cataclysmic consequences for international relations.

Certainly there were some surprises. As host of the event, Gordon Brown sat at the centre of one side of the long banqueting table, with the coveted spot on his right-hand side occupied by Hu, allowing intense discussion of the perils of protectionism over the entrees.

Contrary to expectations, however, the American president was not on Brown's immediate left, but found himself sitting on the other side of the table and two spaces along to the left.

That left two seats between the men, one next to Brown and one next to Obama, for the presidents of Indonesia and South Korea, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Lee Myung-bak, making them the most favoured - and very possibly the most surprised - world leaders of the evening.

The particularly cherished "footsie" position directly opposite Brown, meanwhile, was taken by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, permitting as much discussion of arms sales as any British leader could hope for.

These are not the times for banqueting, and the dignitaries instead tucked into a traditional "best of British" menu of Scottish salmon with samphire and Irish soda bread, roast Welsh lamb with Jersey royals and asparagus, and Bakewell tart and custard to finish. Jamie Oliver, who catered for the event along with a parallel dinner for spouses hosted by Sarah Brown, declared himself "very, very proud of my country and its food traditions".

Nicholas Sarkozy had declared he might walk out of the summit if was unable to secure what he wanted, and Brown, after loftily dismissing the threat not to stay for dessert at his morning press conference, offered the French president a seat as flattering as it was slightly uncomfortable, next to Hu.

Chinese leaders, as we know, do not always respond charitably to rebuff.

Also bought off with a good seat was the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who insisted earlier this week that she would not be bounced into action, and for her pains was placed to Obama's right. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina's president and the only other woman present, won the coveted spot opposite the American leader.

But the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, may have rankled at his position between Mexico and Turkey and opposite South Africa, a full five seats away from the US president.

Exiled to social Siberia at the ends of the table were those guests who were not world leaders, the leaders of the World Bank, IMF and WTO, with the prime ministers of Canada and Australia urged to do the decent family thing next to them. Similarly shunned, and one suspects not terribly surprised, was the Czech prime minister, Mirek Topolanek, who had described the US-proposed global rescue package as the "road to hell".