Obama comfortable as head of nuclear summit before world leaders

President Obama kicked off the 47-country Nuclear Security Summit Tuesday, declaring the risk of nuclear attack, not by an enemy nation, but from terrorists, was on the rise despite the end of the Cold War.
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

During his first year in office, President Obama was often best overseas when he was behind a lectern or onstage before a crowd with a microphone in his hand.

But in convening his first international summit -- the largest on a single issue in Washington history -- he focused more squarely on his relationship with world leaders. He slapped backs, kissed cheeks and met one on one with more than a dozen heads of state, leavening his appeal to shared security interests with a more personal diplomacy.

The approach marked a shift for Obama as he seeks to translate his popularity abroad into concrete support from fellow leaders for his foreign policy agenda, most urgently now in his push for stricter sanctions against Iran.

"He's in charge, he's chairing the meetings, and this is where his personality plays a big part," said Pierre Vimont, the French ambassador to the United States, who compared Obama's role during the summit to the way he led the bipartisan health-care meeting at Blair House in February.

"He does it very well," Vimont continued. "And he feels very comfortable doing it."

Obama used the summit and its sidelines to elevate the arcane issue of nuclear materials security, once the province of scientists and think tanks, to a higher rank on the international security agenda.

But his achieving consensus on the goal of locking down all loose nuclear materials in four years was mitigated by the fact that participation is voluntary. Progress, or lack thereof, will be measured in two years, when leaders gather in South Korea for the second Nuclear Security Summit.

In his role as host, though, Obama gave his fellow heads of state a taste of what has been familiar to many Americans who followed the domestic political debate over the past year: the president as seminar leader.

For four hours Tuesday, Obama led a pair of planning sessions to iron out the final details of the communique that was the culmination of the summit.

He sat at the center of the gathering, calling on leaders to speak, embellish, oppose and offer alternatives to the plan taking shape. Only the heads of state and, at times, two senior aides were allowed in the room, an exclusivity some diplomats called rare.

"He's never better than when he's the teacher," said a European diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly. "Many of those who attended were just happy to be in the picture with Obama. I mean, he did get 46 leaders to Washington on a boring issue. That's pretty good."

Obama's attention to his guests began on the summit's opening night, when he spent more than an hour and a half greeting the 46 foreign leaders and three heads of international organizations he invited.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company