Obama, Going Along to Get Along

By Jackson Diehl
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Barack Obama has proved in the past few days that he can work smoothly and productively with a wide range of foreign leaders -- provided that he allows them to set the agenda.

The president's whirl of bilateral and multilateral meetings in London, Strasbourg, Baden-Baden, Prague and Ankara produced a string of glowing communiques announcing "real and lasting progress on a host of these issues," as Obama proudly put it. There were certainly some tangible results, such as the promise of a new U.S.-Russian treaty to reduce nuclear weapons and the Group of 20's agreement to inject more than $1 trillion into the global economy through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

What's striking about Obama's diplomacy, however, has been his willingness to embrace the priorities of European governments, Russia and China while playing down -- or setting aside altogether -- principal American concerns.

As U.S. officials readily acknowledge, strategic arms control is of much greater interest to Russia -- whose nuclear arsenal is rapidly deteriorating -- than it is to the United States. From Washington's perspective, stopping Iran's nuclear program is far more urgent than agreeing on the next incremental reduction in Cold War warheads. Yet Obama essentially consented in his first summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to devote the next four months of U.S.-Russian relations to an intensive effort to complete a new START treaty. No such cooperation on Iran is on the horizon. "I don't think we want to suggest that somehow . . . there's agreement about how to proceed," one U.S. briefer conceded.

The G-20 and NATO summits followed a similar pattern. Even before Obama traveled to Europe, his administration surrendered on the biggest U.S. priorities -- which were prompting Germany and other Western European countries to boost domestic spending and dispatch more troops and trainers to Afghanistan. With stimulus off the table, the economic summit centered on the platform of Germany and France -- expanding government regulation -- and on areas of general agreement, such as the provision of fresh funding for the IMF.

While the Europeans didn't get all they wanted, they succeeded in setting a framework for responding to the economic crisis that will tilt the global economy toward continental norms. The NATO summit showcased France's return to the alliance's command structure -- another initiative of French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- while offering only short-term contributions of troops for Afghanistan's elections this summer. Less than 2,000 trainers will join the 24,000 American reinforcements arriving in Afghanistan this year.

Obama's deferential approach was manifest in his public statements, which described shrinking U.S. influence as a positive development. At times the president sounded almost apologetic about past American primacy. "Last time you saw the entire international architecture being remade . . . it's just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy," he said at a news conference Thursday. "But that's not the world we live in. And that shouldn't be the world that we live in."

The president did offer a measured pitch for continued U.S. leadership. "America is a critical actor and leader on the world stage, and we shouldn't be embarrassed about that," he said in London. "But we exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognize the world is a complicated place and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries, when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility and recognize we may not always have the best answer."

Other leaders were less humble; in fact, they appeared eager to exploit Obama's pliability. Sarkozy deemed his demands for more statism "nonnegotiable" and threatened a walkout if they weren't heeded. (They were.) German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she wasn't willing to even discuss the American appeal for more government spending. "That is not a bargaining chip," she tartly pronounced.

It could be that Obama's approach will prove effective over time. Once Russia is granted the place it craves as a nuclear negotiating partner of the United States, the prickly regime may prove more willing to toughen sanctions on Iran and North Korea in the name of countering proliferation. Obama's soft sell of U.S. leadership could go over well with European publics, if not with their leaders; that may increase receptivity to American proposals in areas such as energy and climate change.

For many around the world, Obama's diplomacy will certainly look like a refreshing change from that of George W. Bush. Yet in Washington, some may compare it to his handling of early domestic legislation, where he has allowed congressional Democrats to take control and set priorities. Is the new president shrewd and pragmatic about using his power at home and abroad -- or too passive, even weak? That's a question worth weighing as he heads back to Washington.

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