In two weeks of concentrated and personal nuclear diplomacy, Barack Obama has made a start on the statesman’s resume envisioned by those with great hopes for his presidency.
When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize last year, many analysts, observers and American voters shared a common question, “Why?”
The young president was praised as an orator and peddler of lofty goals, but by year’s end, critics began to sniff at a paucity of foreign policy achievements.
But in recent days, Obama flexed American power with a new disarmament treaty with Russia, and reset US nuclear policy.
Then he coaxed most of the world’s top leaders to the first-ever nuclear security summit in Washington — the biggest global meeting hosted by a US leader for six decades.
The powers agreed to safeguard nuclear material against predatory terrorists within four years, and reflected two strands of Obama foreign policy.
One of the president’s first acts abroad was a speech from the ramparts of Prague Castle a year ago, conjuring a dream of a nuclear-free world — which did much to inspire the Nobel committee.
Second, the administration has long argued that Obama’s engagement of powers soured on American leadership during the George W. Bush administration would pay dividends.
They argued Tuesday that Obama’s outreach was beginning to work.
“We think we have been able to bring in, in this summit, the whole world,” said Gary Samore, a top administration arms control official.
The summit ended with few binding pledges, Obama argued the world had committed as never before to tackle what he styled as the gravest security threat.
“Today is a testament to what is possible when nations come together,” said Obama.
Reginald Dale, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has been a critic of Obama’s European diplomacy, allowed that the president’s summit had been, on a public relations front at least, a success.
“It looks good that he has been able to get all those leaders — it was a success that he was able to get President Hu Jintao of China, to come at a time when the relationship has been a little dodgy.”
Obama’s diplomatic evolution has been noticed by foreign leaders not known for doling out praise.
“I am tremendously pleased that President Obama has organized this conference,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“It adds a whole new dimension to the debate about disarmament. It’s a remarkable event.”
Merkel is known in the White House as one of the foreign leaders Obama respects most.
The summit was a typical Obama production.
Often the president swings hard at visionary and historic goals, leaving critics to complain of hubris and skeptics to point out that he has not yet changed the world in a year in office.
But if world powers truly begin to work together to safeguard fissile material, Obama’s big thinking approach will win plaudits.
The sessions also featured another presidential trait, discussions led by the professorial Obama in a collegial, atmosphere, with reporters excluded.
The president’s painstaking diplomacy with China meanwhile, mocked as kowtowing during a visit to Beijing last year, may be bearing fruit, after a stormy period in Sino-US relations.
China seems to be slowly moving towards a new UN sanctions regime to punish Iran, after talks between Obama and Hu here.
A flurry of bilateral meetings showcased Obama as an evolving world leader, forging personal ties with world leaders at a time when his health care reform triumph has infused his leadership with new confidence at home.
Obama aides had previously scoffed at Bush for putting chummy personal connections with foreign leaders above substance.
But Obama aides now highlight a growing trust or rapport between Obama and China’s Hu, and with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
But some caution might be in order.
Even the president, as aides proclaimed success, wearied by the slog of diplomacy, as he discussed the defiance of Iran and North Korea.
“As I said, sanctions are not a magic wand. Unfortunately, nothing in international relations is.”
The China problem is also not over. Beijing’s position is still hard to pin down on Iran sanctions, and weeks of tough negotiating lay ahead at the UN.
Deadlines have also proven problematic for Obama — on health care reform and closing Guantanamo Bay — and it is not clear he can close the deal and get the sanctions agreed in the UN Security Council by his “spring” target.
And while the new START treaty with Russia was widely praised, some analysts have termed it “low hanging fruit” and less significant that some of other foreign policy challenges.
Included on that list is the Middle East impasse and the failed outreach towards US foes like Iran and Cuba.
Copyright © 2010 AFP
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