Few social situations are as amusing or fascinating to watch from a distance as the clashing of two alpha males as they struggle to assert dominance over each other in a public setting.
Doing their own high-profile, high-stakes version of a bloke being forced to meet his girlfriend’s ex in the corner of a crowded nightclub this week was Presidents Obama and Putin – arguably the world’s two most powerful men – who met for their first formal talk in two years at the U.N. General Assembly before the gaze of the global media.
Anyone with a vague grasp of human history knows the world’s largest economy and the world’s largest country have never been exactly ‘tight’ – what to do about Syria being the current cause of the froideur – but the delicious thing about the Obama / Putin years has always been their contrasting personal styles of alpha-ness: Obama being the kind of guy you know deep down your girlfriend probably wants to sleep with thanks to his sensitivity, easy charm and torpedo smile, Putin being the hard man who could not only take you out with a bow and arrow from distance but would know how to skin and cook you on an open fire afterwards.
What Obama and Putin think of each other on a personal level is something we'll probably never fully know (though it may not take a wild guess). But publically, they are obliged to treat one another with distrust and, if possible, appear 'in control', which means how they are photographed together becomes vital, something both are deeply aware of.
The result has been a set of images that border on a parody of a diplomatic meeting with both men straining to seem aloof and authoritative, a sort of comic inversion of the classic cheesy public photo opp where two dignitaries smile and play nice for the cameras.
A handshake between two men is never meaningless. Whatever the situation, both implicitly understand that the conventional palm-to-palm greeting is an opportunity to set the tone for relationship ahead. With that in mind, Obama and Putin may have set a new standard for the coldest handshake of all time, eschewing eye contact, refusing to smile and standing in a way that uses their differences in height to their own advantage.
Note Putin's expression in particular, as though Obama has presented him not with a warm human hand but a stick he's used to scrape a dog turd from the bottom of his shoe.
Having secured the result they both want – a meeting in the middle, with neither leaning in to the other – the two men, who are both technically one bad hangover away from pressing a button and wiping out half the human population, finally meet each other's eyes.
It is a stalemate, amounting to a no score draw: their blank faces mirror each other’s because they both know the smallest of smiles could be construed as weakness. Obama in particular looks as though he is midway through a particularly chewy toffee that has welded his jaw shut.
From the coldest handshake of all time, to the coldest of 'cheers'. When forced to clink glasses at a luncheon hosted by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon later on, the two leaders looked as though they were toasting the news they both had three minutes to live. Putin scores some small points here for holding his flute correctly by the stem – a delicate grip that expresses confidence as well as keeping his drink cold – and appearing to have downed slightly less of his $6000 rose champagne, but really, this is another conscious, cautious attempt to cancel each other out.
And so the photos go on. We’ll never know how Obama and Putin conducted themselves behind closed doors during their ‘constructive and open’ private talk that apparently last 90 minutes. Perhaps, relieved of the camera's scrunity, unshackled from a level of stress only they understand, the two men dropped their guard and have a bloody good laugh at it all, like a pair of drunks who almost get into a fight after accidentally bumping into each other in Londis at 3am then come to their senses and end up hugging it out instead.
But then that would make Obama and Putin into men like you and I: beta males, whose chances of running one of the most powerful countries in the world is exactly zero. Instead, they are alphas among alphas, two butting stags in suits being watched by every single person in the world. Looks exhausting, doesn't it.