In the television and internet age, international summits are often studded with dramatics, especially where diplomacy and summit meetings are concerned. But two indelible images from two very different summits over the past fortnight could not have told more contrasting stories.
They first saw US President Donald Trump defying – and then walking out on – allies at the G7 meeting in Canada – an image posted on the Instagram account of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the second, the same US president got down to business with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who Trump described as “talented”. In both cases, journalists found themselves covering a president who, again, seemed to put more thought into the spectacle – and the Twitter feed at his disposal – than the political substance. The images also split consumers by political viewpoint, demonstrating how influential information and images produced from these landmark summits can be. Dan Nexon is an associate professor at Georgetown University, who says that these theatrics can translate into many different scenarios, depending on the viewer. “Critics of President Trump say this is President Trump isolated, and so it feeds into that pre-existing narrative. For his supporters, it looked [like] this is how America should be with every other leader gathered around him. So, a sign of American strength, status and position in the dominance hierarchy,” explains Nexon of the image from the G7 meeting. In the case of the profound handshake imagery from the historic meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-un, political science professor Bruce Miroff says this has provided a stark contrast with the G7 image from the same week. “The symbolic meaning of a 13-second handshake in this visual form is the establishment of a physical and therefore a personal bond between the two leaders. So the first image [from the G7 meeting] is one of alienation, opposition and even international condemnation of Trump. The second is Trump claiming that he has, in a sense, made peace in the very first gesture of the summit.” This kind of orchestrated political performance is widely welcomed by many as the media spectacle is fed and Trump’s modus operandi of providing vague to little detail is conveniently swept aside in favour of the imagery. “It’s sort of reality TV. It’s like the society of the spectacle. And he’s very good at it. With Trump, we don’t know what’s going to happen next and that’s what makes it a soap opera,” says journalist and author Pepe Escobar. “And you, as a journalist, you should try to intersect and cross-reference the absolute craziness of the ongoing show … is there any substance in all this?”