PITTSBURGH - One of the more useful parts of the G-20 summit was the unscripted outside-the-Convention-Center contacts between us and them.
Not alone, the University of Pittsburgh made a particular effort in that area, sponsoring both a speech and luncheon meeting with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and an exchange later in the afternoon between students and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the university's Cathedral of Learning, a building which would not be out of place on the banks of the Moskva River.
The Barroso visit to campus built on a strong relationship between Pitt and the European Union. Pitt's EU Center of Excellence was established in 1998. Mr. Barroso has visited there before and was honored with an honorary degree last Thursday.
Mr. Barroso's relaxed relationship with Pitt made it possible for him to speak with frankness about the issues of the summit. He also carefully but candidly spoke of some of the EU's differences with the Obama Administration. His consistent theme was the necessity of maintaining bridges between the United States and Europe as the membership and scope of the world's decision-making players expanded from the G-8 to the G-20. This enlargement was considered by the G-20 leaders as the most important agreement to come out of the summit in Pittsburgh.
Mr. Barroso cited as important topics for the summit measures that would allow the world to recover from the recession. He spoke of the need for reforms in the financial markets, calling for regulation but "smart" regulation, including of executive remuneration. He said that "high-stakes poker" in that domain was "over."
He didn't duck the tough questions. One student asked if, as European Commission president, elected by the European parliament, he anticipated governance problems when the EU, assuming the new Lisbon Treaty is approved, actually has a popularly elected president. He said no, that there already were sufficient problems to go around, including "global imbalance" (large vs. small countries), "fiscal imprudence" (trying to get balanced budgets out of EU members) and a "crisis of values" (some countries don't want Turkey in the EU because it is Muslim).
He signaled as a sensitive area between the EU and the United States differing positions on regulation of financial institutions, including pay for executives. Within the EU the problem to some degree is cross-border financial entities. He concluded by saying that the United States and Europe remained the No. 1 world partnership. As such, on the regulation issue they were obliged to seek a degree of "regulatory convergence," an elegant term for a hard issue.
The students' meeting with Russian President Medvedev was something of a revelation. Since his election in 2008, there has been a tendency on the part of the world to see Mr. Medvedev as a plain vanilla stand-in for former Russian president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Medvedev, faced with hundreds of students and others, a surprising number of whom were Russian-speakers, was something else. He stood there for an hour, took a lot of questions - some of them sharp-edged, some on rather detailed and sometimes sensitive Russian domestic issues - and never lost his fluency or sangfroid.
The first question was on Russia-Georgia relations. Mr. Medvedev said he saw a good future but that he wasn't going to deal with Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili, who he said had committed crimes against his own people and the people of South Ossetia. Asked in Russian for advice for Russian students at Pitt he gave a "shortest, gladdest years of life" response.
Asked to link the recent U.S. walkaway from missile defense in Eastern Europe with Russia's attitude toward economic sanctions against Iran, Mr. Medvedev gave a cagey answer that left me fairly certain that Russia sees the U.S. move as part of the overall U.S.-Russian relationship - which it will improve - but that Russia is likely to see harsher sanctions against Iran as very much a last resort, stressing "positive incentives" as a better tactic in upcoming talks with Iran in Geneva.
Mr. Medvedev fielded a difficult question on the difference between dealing with former President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama. He said he was comfortable with Mr. Obama, who is of his generation. Mr. Obama listens and doesn't preach. He described Mr. Obama as "bold and courageous" in undertaking to change Bush policies.
On the G-20 summit, Mr. Medvedev said he was particularly pleased at efforts to construct a new financial architecture. It would serve as the basis for a global economy. It wasn't Bretton Woods.
He then got a zinger on Russia-Belarus relations. He said he would meet soon with the president of Belarus, a "sister" nation, "not a junior or a senior sister." On Russia-Ukraine relations he said they "weren't as simple as they looked from Kiev." But he saw "nothing fatal" coming up.
"What is most important in life?" asked a student. "Love," said the president. He then got a sticky question on diamonds in Sakha (Yakutia,) one of the Russian republics. He lateraled the question to the minister of finance.
Did he plan to run for president in 2012 against Mr. Putin? - again in Russian. "If it is desirable," he said. And Mr. Putin? "Ask him. We will discuss it jointly," he said. "I will do whatever is good for my country. … Any post." He never missed a beat.
Dan Simpson, a retired diplomat, is a member of the editorial boards of The Blade and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: email@example.com