By Doyle McManus
Barack Obama has fallen back to Earth.
When he ran for president, Obama said his election would be “the moment the rise of the oceans began to slow.” And when he made his first big foreign trip in April, he was hailed by adoring crowds – and almost-as-adoring politicians – in Britain, Germany, France and the Czech Republic.
But last week, in Russia and Italy, Obamania was little more than a pleasant memory. Yes, his international polling numbers are still high, but the president encountered hardly any adulation in the streets of Moscow or anywhere else. Instead, Russian strongman Vladimir Putin reportedly gave him a tongue-lashing over a two-hour breakfast, and the tent-bound refugees from Italy’s April earthquake mostly wanted to know whether he could rebuild their homes. (“Yes, we camp,” their banner said, pointedly.)
And the oceans are still rising too. At the Group of 8 summit, the developing countries said no to a timetable to stop global warming, the reason for the waters’ rise.
That’s not to say the trip was a bust; it wasn’t. But it was far from a triumph, and that’s a new experience for Obama’s foreign policy team.
The hard reality of international affairs is that, just as the United States has interests, so do other countries. And when those interests conflict, all the charm and charisma in the world can’t resolve the differences.
At the G-8 summit, the United States, Britain and France had hoped for a tough statement on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The closest they got to a warning was this: “We sincerely hope that Iran will seize this opportunity to give diplomacy a chance.”
The summit’s other accomplishments were mostly worthy half-measures. The developing countries wouldn’t sign on, but the eight big economies agreed to try to for deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, 41 years from now. After a personal appeal from Obama, member nations promised US$20 billion to help poor countries grow more food, but much of the money turned out to be old pledges under a new name.
Obama went to Moscow to “reset” US-Russian relations, which under George W. Bush had veered from unrealistic enthusiasm to bitter recriminations. Obama succeeded in changing the tone, but the concrete results were modest. The two nuclear powers agreed on a framework for reducing their atomic arsenals, but because both sides went into the talks wanting to cut, the nuclear issue was the easy part.
More difficult were the issues each country sees as its top priority: for the United States, the problem of Iran; for Russia, the desire of its onetime possessions Ukraine and Georgia to escape from Moscow’s orbit.
Obama avoided the rookie mistake that John F. Kennedy committed at his first summit meeting in 1961, when the new president left the Russians thinking he was young, untested and uncertain. Obama said clearly that Russia must respect the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia. But he certainly didn’t leave with the issue resolved.
On Iran, which aides said was a dominant subject of the meetings, there was no sign that Obama got the Russians to budge. The US wants Russia to support tougher economic sanctions to push Iran towards giving up its nuclear fuel production. Russia, which views next-door neighbour Iran as both a business opportunity and a local security problem, has no appetite for that kind of confrontation.
“Iran is Russia’s important partner,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said on the eve of Obama’s visit. “We cooperate and do so very productively.” More sanctions “will only deteriorate the situation,” he said. And that was his last word on the subject.
At their news conference, Obama wanted to talk about Iran, but Medvedev wouldn’t mention it. The Russians agreed to a joint study on the threat of ballistic missiles from countries including North Korea and Iran, but that’s about all.
“People have made too much of the ‘reset.’ They’ve talked about it as if it had magical properties or strategic content,” said Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations, a 25-year veteran of US-Russia diplomacy. “But what happens when you reset a computer? You don’t change the content. All you do, if you’re lucky, is get the bugs out and start working again.”
Obama and his aides may succeed in building a less angry, more businesslike relationship with the Russians, but will that change Moscow’s views on Iran? Not likely. As Sestanovich puts it: “Russians don’t think the problem is solvable.”
Americans, of course, think every problem is solvable – a persistent difference between the Old World and the New. But judging from last week’s inconclusive diplomacy, the Russians may be right about this one.
The United States and its allies want Iran to negotiate, but Iran’s Islamic leaders, facing challenges to their legitimacy at home, are digging in their heels. The next step, probably in September, is a concerted Western effort to step up economic sanctions against Iran – but that may mean a confrontation with Russia and China, which don’t agree that sanctions are necessary.
All of which left Obama sounding, at the end of the week, as if he looked forward to getting back to solvable problems – such as the economy and healthcare. “The one thing I will be looking forward to,” he said, “is fewer summit meetings.”
McManus is a Lost Angeles Times columnist.