NEW DELHI — When world leaders gather at the G20 summit on Saturday morning, the smiles may be more awkward than usual.
While China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin won’t be there, a B-list of strongmen with their own damning human rights records will be ready to embarrass the leaders of Western democracy with some stiff handshakes and fixed grins.
Some of these international bad guys also have played an increasingly assertive role in negotiations on the Ukraine war — interventions welcomed by the Ukrainian government. However unsavory their domestic records may be, that means they can’t be ignored.
Take Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman. According to U.S. intelligence, he approved the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But last month, he hosted a multinational meeting in Jeddah aimed at kick-starting peace talks. He’s also staying on after the G20 for a state visit in India.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has locked up thousands of political opponents and stifled media freedom, met Putin just this week in an effort to unblock grain shipments through the Red Sea.
One official involved in preparations for the summit in Delhi this week joked that the optics will be challenging. “No one wants that photo-op with MBS, let’s face it,” the official said.
But overall, Western diplomats are unapologetic about engaging with the bad boys of the G20 — reflecting a growing realization in Western capitals the battle to win minds on the Ukraine war is not working and needs buy-in from the countries beyond the affluent capitals of Europe and North America.
“I’m not here to issue scorecards,” said U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, when asked this week if President Biden was relaying U.S. concerns about Narendra Modi’s record on religious and press freedoms during his multiple meetings with the Indian leader.
Biden is expected to hold a meeting with MBS, with whom he shared an infamous fist-bump last year, a sign to many that all had been forgiven.
One European official involved in the preparations praised India for its work behind the scenes in trying to get consensus on an agreement rather than settling on different positions.
“If they succeed, it shows that the G20 has a future,” said the official, who was granted anonymity to speak openly due to the sensitive nature of the matter.
Ukraine remained the most divisive issue for G20 diplomats trying to hammer out a summit communique, with negotiations continuing late into Friday night.
G7 countries — and the EU — are demanding that the principles enshrined in the U.N. Charter on territorial integrity and national sovereignty are reflected in the language.
Also weighing on minds is the global economy. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz touches down in Delhi just as economic figures showed that industrial production in Europe’s economic powerhouse nose-dived again in July.
China is battling a slowing economy and a real-estate crisis. But it’s countries like India that are witnessing the kind of accelerated growth levels that suggest it is on the up.
In New Delhi, giant posters of a smiling Modi, India’s prime minister, speckle the routes downtown.
This is India’s moment in the sun. Modi’s government has used its stint in the chair to show it can play a more assertive role in the global order.
India’s self-confidence as it hosts the global shindig signals a deeper geopolitical shift.
Three western officials with direct knowledge of the summit preparations said Brazil and South Africa, in particular, were playing a key role behind the scenes in coordination with India to get consensus on a final summit declaration, the holy grail of gatherings such as this.