A Hague Summit Dispatch: From Scripted Press Briefs to Propaganda Videos

President Obama waves as he walks up the stairs of Air Force One before leaving Amsterdam, Netherlands, on March 25. The leader attended a two-day Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague.
National Journal
Sebastian Sprenger
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Sebastian Sprenger
March 28, 2014, 11:14 a.m.

THE HAG­UE, NETH­ER­LANDS — Glob­al polit­ics has a funny way of play­ing out in mi­cro­cosm when lead­er­ship sum­mits are largely scrip­ted in ad­vance.

That cer­tainly was the case dur­ing this week’s 2014 Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit, hos­ted here by the Dutch gov­ern­ment.

The two-day gath­er­ing of 53 world lead­ers to dis­cuss ways of keep­ing sens­it­ive atom­ic ma­ter­i­als out of the hands of ter­ror­ists was to be­gin at 1:30 p.m. on Monday. Yet by mid-morn­ing, the U.S. del­eg­a­tion had already can­celed a noon press con­fer­ence — no­tori­ously un­pre­dict­able af­fairs, and per­haps even more so with for­eign press in­volved.

U.S. En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz and Yosuke Isoza­ki, a Ja­pan­ese na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser, did hold a Monday press event, where they read an an­nounce­ment on the re­mov­al of weapons-us­able nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­al from the is­land na­tion.

Re­port­ers were poised to vol­ley ques­tions — like, say, about po­ten­tial U.S. se­cur­ity con­cerns re­gard­ing nuc­le­ar ma­ter­i­als not covered un­der the new bi­lat­er­al agree­ment or ap­par­ent lapses in guard­ing Ja­pan­ese fa­cil­it­ies where bomb-us­able plutoni­um is held.

But in­stead the event ended pre­cip­it­ously with the two lead­ers shak­ing hands for the cam­er­as — and with roar­ing ap­plause from what ap­peared to be a con­tin­gent of Ja­pan­ese gov­ern­ment staffers sit­ting among the re­port­ers.

Mon­iz would ap­pear in a sim­il­ar format the next day, this time with Dutch For­eign Min­is­ter Frans Tim­mer­mans and South Korean For­eign Min­is­ter Yun By­ung-se. The top­ic this time was a tri-na­tion­al ini­ti­at­ive aim­ing to in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity prac­tices world­wide.

An aide an­nounced ahead of time that no ques­tions would be taken, and the lead­ers were quickly whisked out of the packed room fol­low­ing their state­ments. “Tight sched­ules” were to blame, re­port­ers were told.

Some gov­ern­ments offered great­er ac­cess to their do­mest­ic me­dia in ad­mit­ting re­port­ers to their events.

Rus­sia — per­haps sens­ing a need for deep­er in­ter­na­tion­al un­der­stand­ing of its motives lately — proved to be al­most an ex­em­plary ex­cep­tion to the rule. Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lav­rov‘s Monday af­ter­noon press con­fer­ence in­cluded 23 Rus­si­an journ­al­ists and 18 me­dia rep­res­ent­at­ives from else­where.

A dif­fer­ent story at the U.K. del­eg­a­tion. This re­port­er signed up to take part in a Monday press con­fer­ence fea­tur­ing Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter Dav­id Camer­on. He might have been asked, for in­stance, to re­act to Scot­tish de­mands for his apo­logy about a lack of gov­ern­ment no­ti­fic­a­tion fol­low­ing a ra­di­ation leak at the Doun­reay nuc­le­ar re­act­or.

An of­fi­cial es­cor­ted to the high-se­cur­ity brief­ing room the pack of per­haps a dozen journos — a sus­pi­ciously small group for such a plum event, in hind­sight. Only then did a gen­tle­man with a Brit­ish ac­cent — but look­ing noth­ing like the Con­ser­vat­ive Party lead­er — emerge.

An “em­bar­rass­ing mis­un­der­stand­ing” had oc­curred, he said. Camer­on was in­deed go­ing to hold a press brief­ing, the uniden­ti­fied man told the re­port­ers, but only a “private” one for mem­bers of the U.K. press. Plead­ings from the mostly main­land-Europe press went un­heeded.

Later that af­ter­noon, a press event with Pakistani Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif was on the sched­ule. Would the Is­lamabad lead­er en­ter­tain the idea of in­clud­ing his coun­try’s grow­ing nuc­le­ar stock­pile in the lar­ger nuc­le­ar-se­cur­ity con­ver­sa­tion?

Hav­ing learned a les­son from the scotched U.K. press con­fer­ence, a hand­ful of re­port­ers who gathered to see Sharif began to sus­pect that the ut­ter ab­sence of Pakistani press col­leagues was a ter­rible sign.

A Dutch sum­mit of­fi­cial shared the con­cern and tapped away at his cell phone in at­tempts to de­term­ine why the Pakistani Em­bassy had yet to con­firm the brief­ing.

Fi­nally, cer­tainty, the aide said: No Pakistanis would ap­pear at this press brief­ing, as the prime min­is­ter was said to have plans for at­tend­ing Pres­id­ent Obama’s clos­ing press con­fer­ence with­in the hour. The aide ad­ded that he was ex­pli­citly in­struc­ted not use the word “can­celed,” but didn’t say why.

As the sum­mit wound down, re­port­ers gathered over at the Chinese press cen­ter, where Beijing of­fi­cials were show­ing pro­pa­ganda videos. Miao Wei, Beijing’s min­is­ter of in­dustry and in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy, was nowhere to be seen for his 7 p.m. press event.

A Chinese aide told this re­port­er — in a be­mused but some­what re­proach­ful aside — that Miao was stuck in traffic caused by Obama’s con­voy out of The Hag­ue.

Forty-five minutes later, the min­is­ter ar­rived and told the journ­al­ists — the vast ma­jor­ity of them Chinese — that he would ad­dress every single ques­tion to make up for his tardi­ness. Trans­lated by an in­ter­pret­er, most of the press con­fer­ence played out as a care­fully cho­reo­graphed af­fair, with Miao read­ing re­sponses to ques­tions he ap­peared to have an­ti­cip­ated in de­tail.

A Dutch news­let­ter re­port­er seemed to stump Miao and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing seni­or of­fi­cial from the China Atom­ic En­ergy Au­thor­ity. They were asked about U.S. mil­it­ary ex­er­cises co­in­cid­ing with the 2016 Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit, tent­at­ively slated to take place in Wash­ing­ton, and the pos­sib­il­ity of a germ-war­fare at­tack there. It was time to pack up.

Out­side, the bar­ri­cades and closed streets had be­gun to re­open, and loc­als were now fil­ter­ing in­to the sum­mit com­pound for an even­ing stroll. People on bikes re­claimed their roads from the world’s power­ful.

A loc­al pa­per the next morn­ing fea­tured pho­tos of the vis­it­ing heads of state along­side the head­line, “Het was gezel­lig!” — Dutch for “It’s been cozy.”

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