With so many world leaders in town, it may be hard to stay on topic

It’s not often you have more than 40 world leaders, including the U.S. president, and other top officials gathered in the same place. And that may lead to some officials going off-topic.

This week’s nuclear security summit, hosted by the White House in Washington, is designed to produce an actionable agreement to secure all loose nuclear material around the globe. But a number of sideline discussions among heads of state could take place that have little to do with the summit’s proposed subject.

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“Every world leader coming to the [summit] is going to have their own agenda points they want to press and will be expecting to be pressed in turn by some of the other heads of state,” said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear proliferation group. “This is the give and take of global politics … There might well be some horse trading going on.”

President Barack Obama began one-on-one meetings Sunday with several of the heads of state, many who are not just concerned about the spread of nuclear material throughout the world. 


King Abdullah II of Jordan, for example, could be of valuable assistance in Obama's quest to shift the Middle East peace process back into high gear, and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani of Pakistan may have a thing or two to say about U.S. unmanned drone strikes on insurgent enclaves.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, who assumed office just one month ago, is making full use of his short stay in Washington. His country recently suffered a massive earthquake and is in urgent need of foreign assistance.

On Monday, Piñera is expected to meet with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and a group of corporate CEOs interested in reconstruction of the South American country, according to a Chilean Embassy official. Also on Monday, he is offering a presentation at the Brookings Institution titled “Rebuilding our Country Better than it was Before.”

No bilateral meeting is planned between Piñera and Obama at the summit, but the Chilean president is expected to sit next to his American counterpart on Tuesday for lunch. The same embassy official said it was unclear whether Piñera would raise a request for more foreign aid then with the president.

Other issues on the fringes of the summit could enter the discussion among leaders next week.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili could raise his country’s membership bid for NATO. That’s often been a sore point for Russia, which skirmished with Georgia in August 2008 and is fearful of Western encroachment into their sphere of influence.

But in a call last week with Obama, the Georgian president neglected to mention the NATO bid, according to readouts provided by officials from both countries.

In addition, China’s alleged manipulation of its currency has riled Democratic lawmakers and their union supporters, who say it is the reason for America’s large trade deficit. Chinese President Hu Jintao is expected to meet with Obama and the topic may come up.

“I would not expect President Obama and President Hu to resolve the Chinese currency issue over dinner. But there may well be some exchanges about this issue during the dinner,” Cirincione said.

China observers disagree. Erin Ennis of the U.S.-China Business Council said there has been progress on the impasse, with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently delaying his department’s annual currency report and making an unscheduled stop in China this week.

“The calendar doesn’t allow them to talk about much else. Our understanding is the [Chinese] president will only be on the ground for a short amount of time,” Ennis said. “That, plus the progress we have seen on the bigger issues in the last week and a half, suggests a meeting between the two leaders will focus on the multilateral goals of the summit instead.”

Nevertheless, other world leaders plan to take advantage of their time in the United States.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to discuss with leaders of state his opposition to a congressional resolution recognizing the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide.

“The nuclear issue is not the only topic on the agenda. There are many other issues to discuss,” he said more than a week ago, according to Hurriyet Daily News. “[Talks in Washington] are an important chance and we will make use of this opportunity. We have taken all the required steps up to now.”

Turkey recalled its ambassador after the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the resolution on March 4. Tempers have since cooled, though, and the ambassador will return to America.

The resolution may also crop up with another world leader.

Like Erdogan, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan is attending the summit. Along with the scheduled discussions about nuclear security as a member of the U.S. Nuclear Smuggling Outreach Initiative, Sargsyan may want to talk about the resolution as well as the ongoing normalization process between his country and Turkey -- and he scored a bilateral meeting with Obama.