"Leader Of The Free World"?

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 4, 2009

Is this any way to conduct diplomacy?

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.

The President acceded to a Russian demand for a greater focus on arms control without getting reciprocity from the Russians in terms of focusing on stopping Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon. The NATO summit was a failure. And against European negotiating challenges, Barack Obama shrank:

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.

I keep making this point, but it deserves continuing emphasis: The election of Barack Obama was supposed to restore America to a place of primacy and leadership in the world. But it seems that the new President is allowing Europe to take the lead and begging forgiveness for past American efforts at leading the alliance–efforts that helped create a better world on all fronts and for which no apology whatsoever should be offered. Say this about George W. Bush: He may have been as disliked by other countries–including our allies–as the punditocracy says he was. But he never let anyone command the President of the United States.

The Obama trip abroad showed astonishing weakness in terms of bargaining and negotiating on behalf of American interests. Who actually believes that European countries will forget this milquetoast behavior the next time their leaders encounter the President at a summit? And absent a 180-degree reversal, who actually believes that American interests will not continue to be harmed by a President too scared to assert them forcefully and intelligently?

Of course, all of this substance is much too much for the likes of Gail Collins, who just seems to be content to note that Barack Obama is not George W. Bush and that the Republicans are more annoying than the French, even as she is forced to wonder–or inadvertently wonders; one can easily imagine Collins accidentally giving away the store when it comes to an argument–that “Is it possible that Obama’s winning quality was his willingness to be a good loser? The president’s main mission, after all, was to try to talk the French and Germans into supporting a serious global stimulus plan, and he failed. There were other accomplishments, sure. But even the tiniest seemed to have required a lot of pandering.”

Perhaps instead of union-busting, the Times could try to save itself by getting columnists who are more talented than Gail Collins. Save Dowd and Tom Friedman, they could hardly recruit worse.

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