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.
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. (Koen Van Weel-Pool/Getty Images)

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."

March 28, 2014

The Chinese delegation blames President Obama for snarling traffic in the Netherlands as reporters wait 45 minutes for a Beijing envoy's press conference to begin.