Much of the talk in the run-up to the G-20 summit convening in Pittsburgh this morning revolves around issues outside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center: parking and traffic, security, protesters, and how the international media views our little city.
But what exactly will be going on inside the convention center?
A lot, but not in the way you’d expect, according to two foreign policy analysts who spoke to some 40 people at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Sept. 16, in a presentation called “The G-20: How Will Leading Nations Lead” hosted by the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee.
The G-20 is best understood as an informal gathering of heads of state, according to David Shorr with the Stanley Foundation, a nonpartisan Iowa-based think tank.
Where formal groups like the United Nations and the World Bank have charters, legally binding treaties and members with voting and veto power, the G-20 is a voluntary gathering of leaders selected by the host nation to discuss certain topics — usually financial.
The importance of the G-20, Shorr said, is that it brings heads of state together in one place, making it easier to discuss problems that require collaboration among nations — a format he said is well suited for 21st century problems that involve a global perspective.
This more informal setting, though, can also keep the summit from being productive.
For instance, the “invite list” is always a major question. The host country chooses who comes to a G-8 or G-20 meeting, and the host doesn’t want to offend anyone. For the Pittsburgh summit, the United States invited 19 leading economies and the European Union, but also invited Spain and the Netherlands, and eight nonstate groups such as the United Nations and the World Bank. So really the summit is the G-20, plus two, plus eight.
Shorr and the Stanley Foundation have called for reforming the summit process, which they call “G-X,” to make it a better tool for getting things done.
“We should be preparing for these summits by developing issues that are difficult, but ripe for some kind of progress, and putting those in front of the leaders,” Shorr said before his talk.
The heavy lifting, though, is mostly completed by the time the summit begins, according to Andrew Weiss with the Washington, D.C., branch of the RAND Corporation.
Weiss said there would be “choreography,” “posturing” and “gamesmanship” during the week of the summit, but that for months experts have quietly been meeting to compose a “summit statement” that will be issued by the heads of state following its conclusion.
The London G-20 Summit in April yielded a nine-page document with 29 statements devoted to jobs, regulations, financial institutions, trade and economic recovery.
“That’s really the substance of this,” Weiss said.
Many of the questions after the presentations touched on Iran, specifically how the United States, Israel and the world would respond to the country’s nuclear ambitions.
One person asked Weiss and Shorr if they believed Iranian claims that its nuclear program is peaceful and exclusively for energy uses, and, if not, what the international community could do to keep Iran from using that program to create nuclear weapons.
Shorr, whose background in Washington, D.C., includes arms control and conflict resolution, said the world could accept those claims in order to reach an agreement with Iran, but not when it came to enforcing an agreement with Iran.
“We can’t simply accept it at face value,” Shorr said, “because the road they are going down leads where it leads.”
But he added that the international community might need to publicly take Iran at its word for pragmatic reasons.
“If we’re going to find a peaceful, diplomatic solution, then that solution is going to have within it some form of face saving having to do with the face value explanation being validated,” Shorr said.
The other, crucial element of that solution will be “intensive inspections regimes” to guarantee Iran wasn’t still working on nuclear weapons.
“It is an urgent problem. It is a problem where the clock is ticking,” Shorr said. “At the same time … we’re not going to wake up in just a few months, and they’re going to be a nuclear weapons capable state. I think there is time to figure out a diplomatic solution, but it’s time that has to be used actively, aggressively. This is just a personal opinion: that the Obama administration is getting it just about right.”
Critics of the administration, such as John Bolton, believe diplomacy with Iran won’t work, and the United States should focus instead on regime change and military force.
Another person asked if the Obama administration was being passive on Iran, which might lead Israel to become impatient and strike, as some commentators have suggested.
Weiss thinks the Obama administration is invested in a diplomatic solution and doesn’t want to corner Israel or Iran, but he noted that the “delicacy” of the issue meant the White House wouldn’t present its deliberations to the public in a transparent way.
“The president has to strike a balance,” Weiss said.
A third person asked if Iran could benefit by clarifying the intent of its nuclear program.
According to Weiss, “The problem is that nobody believes what the Iranians say.”

(Eric Lidji can be reached at

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