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As world leaders meet, Obama not participating

The leaders of 19 foreign powers converge on Washington on Friday for an emergency economic summit meeting hosted by President Bush. Obama has opted to stay in Chicago.
/ Source: The New York Times

The world is waiting for President-elect , and some of its most prominent leaders are flying into the United States this weekend clamoring to meet with him. But they will have to keep on waiting.

The leaders of 19 foreign powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, converge on Washington on Friday for an emergency economic summit meeting hosted by President Bush. Although invited, Mr. Obama has opted to stay in Chicago and will not meet any of the leaders separately.

Coming so soon after last week’s election, the summit meeting has proved an uncomfortable moment for the president-elect and an early test of his handling of international diplomacy. Even as aides are still closing his campaign headquarters and just beginning to assemble a governing team, they are fending off interest from foreign governments eager to take the measure of the next president and trying to avoid tying him to the departing administration.

Several Obama advisers, in separate interviews, all used the word “awkward” to describe the situation. But , a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, said: “While some may say it’s awkward that he’s not there, it would be far more problematic to be there. We firmly believe there is only one president at a time.”

The situation has already fostered misunderstandings. Russian officials told reporters in Moscow that President of Russia would probably meet with Mr. Obama during his trip to the United States this weekend, even though the Obama camp has ruled that out.

The potential for even more significant misunderstanding was underscored last weekend when a quick, seemingly perfunctory telephone call by Mr. Obama returning the congratulatory call of Poland’s president led to a dispute about what was said about missile defense. If confusion over such a delicate issue could arise from a roughly five-minute phone call, Obama advisers reasoned, then the prospect of longer encounters in person with foreign leaders at this point would be fraught with peril. He has not even designated a secretary of state, Treasury secretary or national security adviser.

Instead, the Obama team is scrambling to arrange for surrogates to meet with visiting foreign officials while emphasizing that Mr. Bush remains the nation’s leader until Jan. 20. “It’s not appropriate for two people to show up for this meeting,” said , co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s .

The White House expressed no disappointment and vowed to work closely with the president-elect. “We continue to work with the transition team on the financial summit and will keep them up to date,” said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman.

Foreign affairs veterans said Mr. Obama was trying to play it safe and avoid being forced to take positions on matters he is not authorized to decide, much less take ownership for the problems and decisions of Mr. Bush.

“I sort of understand why he can’t go to that meeting,” said Representative , Democrat of California and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “What if the administration makes a suggestion that he doesn’t agree with? Should he pop up and say something? Is his silence acquiescence? I think he’s making the right call.”

Stephen D. Krasner, former policy planning director at the State Department under Mr. Bush, said Mr. Obama should not assume a role he does not formally have yet. “It may appear to be awkward,” he said, “but the key thing is it’s a government that operates by law and Obama has no authority until he’s inaugurated.”

The period between an election and inauguration has often fostered tension and uncertainty when it comes to foreign affairs. wanted his successor to support peace talks with North Vietnam and arms talks with the Soviet Union, but undercut those efforts. The first President Bush sent troops to Somalia after his re-election defeat but before ’s inauguration.

The protocol for a new president’s making first contacts with foreign leaders can be complicated and delicate. New presidents have traditionally made Canada’s prime minister the first foreign leader they meet with after taking office, in recognition of its status as a neighbor and trading partner.

In January 1993, Mr. Clinton met with Mexico’s president in Texas while still president-elect, setting off angry protests from Canada. He responded by promising to make its prime minister his first foreign visitor after he took office.

Similarly, the Canadians were upset when the current President Bush took office in 2001 and promptly scheduled a trip to Mexico. Mr. Bush rectified the situation by bringing Canada’s prime minister to Washington for a hurriedly arranged meeting before the departure for Mexico.

Mr. Obama called for “a globally coordinated effort with our partners in the G-20” in a campaign stop in Miami in September. But some of his advisers said the timing of the gathering this week was not their choice and wished there were a graceful way to call it off or at least postpone it.

Obama advisers said it would be impractical to set up separate meetings with any foreign leaders on the sidelines of the summit meeting, if only because it would be hard to meet with a few and not all 19 visitors.

Peter D. Feaver, a former strategic adviser at the under Mr. Bush, said meeting foreign visitors should be a low priority at this point. “To organize and set up a social bilat like that just consumes staff time and energy that could be devoted to transition planning and 100-day planning and staff and so forth,” he said. “And the payoff would be fairly low.”

Reporting was contributed by Jeff Zeleny from Washington, Clifford J. Levy from Moscow, Nicholas Kulish from Berlin and Steven Erlanger from Paris.

This story, "World leaders at nation's doorstep, but next president isn't taking meetings," originally appeared in the New York Times.