Conflict & Justice

Obama nixes an APEC tradition: silly shirts


US President George W. Bush (L), Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) Chinese President Hu Jintao (2nd L), Chilean President Michelle Bachelet (2nd R) and Thailand Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont (R), all wearing a Vietnamese "ao dai" silk tunics, take part in the official photograph for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hanoi, Vietnam 19 November 2006.


Jim Watson

On a day he urged China to behave like a "grown up," President Barack Obama demonstrated by nixing the tradition of funny shirts at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hawaii.

The tradition, which sees APEC leaders don shirts of sartorial significance to the host country for their "family" portrait, was started by Bill Clinton in Seattle in 1993 as a way of lightening mood before serious economic discussion.

The shirts became a yearly APEC talking point, and an especially useful prop for photographers hoping to snap an instantly recognizable — and entertaining — picture.

APEC chic, as The Guardian terms it, "has gone from strength to strength. Not surprisingly, Bush and Putin proved themselves to be naturals." 

However, in a move lamented even by some APEC leaders themselves, Obama broke precedent in Honolulu, requiring only a suit and tie for the group photo.

"Where are the Hawaiian shirts?" Chilean president Pinera Echenique asked, according to The Guardian. 

Perhaps it had something to do with Obama's not wanting to distract from the decidedly un-silly message he had for China at the summit late Monday: namely that Beijing needed to properly value its currency and adhere to trade rules.

"There is a concern across the political spectrum that the playing field is not level right now," he told reporters at a post-APEC news conference, USA Today reported. "We try to set up rules that are universal, that everybody can follow, and then we play by those rules... And then we compete fiercely. But we don't try to game the system. That's part of what leadership is about."

China once had the luxury of breaking trade rules and "it didn't really matter," USA Today quotes Obama as saying, but 20 or 30 years ago: "You weren't seeing huge trade imbalances that had consequences for the world financial system."

However: "Now [China has] grown up, and so they're going to have to help manage this process in a responsible way."

Chinese President Hu Jintao, for his part, called for APEC members to continue to promote global trade and investment liberalization.

"Protectionism in various forms is on a notable increase," The China Daily quoted Hu as saying.

"Opening-up in trade and investment is crucial to economic recovery. We should fully honor the commitments already made, avoid new trade protectionist measures, firmly oppose and jointly resist protectionism of all forms, and work to establish a balanced, inclusive and win-win multilateral trading regime."

Back to the silly shirts.

According to CBS, the 21 leaders at this year's APEC summit were "photographed together in the customary, stodgy presidential wear — neckties and dark suits — not the casual aloha shirts that many were hoping to see them in."

Obama reportedly offered this explanation on Sunday:

"I got rid of the Hawaiian shirts because I looked at pictures of some of the previous APEC meetings and some of the garb that appeared previously and I thought this might be a tradition that we might want to break. I suggested to leaders, we gave them a shirt and I promise you if they wanted to wear it that would have been fine but I didn't hear a lot of complaints about breaking precedent."

Obama attempted to mitigate the pain of leaders looking forward to their silly shirt close-up, saying — according to the Washington Post — that:

"Two years ago, when I was in Singapore and it was announced that we would be hosting the APEC Summit here in Honolulu, I promised that you would all have to wear aloha shirts or grass skirts. But I was persuaded by our team to perhaps break tradition, and so we have not required you to wear your aloha shirts, although I understand that a few of you have tried them on for size, and we may yet see you in them in the next several days."