HOW’D HE DO?…. The world leaders who assembled at the G20 reached an agreement to address the global economic crisis, but whether their plan has merit depends a bit on who you ask. On the one hand, the agreement “was more than what experts expected,” and was arguably “remarkable given the discord that preceded Thursday’s meeting.” The LA Times said the end product “surprised many observers with its unusually substantive achievements.” At the same time, the WSJ and NYT were less impressed.
But how about President Obama’s first turn on the global stage, just two months into his first term? He told reporters yesterday, “I think I did O.K.” By some measures, Obama was selling himself short.
For example, there was a heated disagreement between France and China over tax havens and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. Obama personally intervened, took the opposing leaders aside, and brokered an agreement based on little more than a rhetorical shift. The process seemed a little silly, but it was the U.S. president’s “first moment as a statesman.”
TNR‘s John Judis said Obama’s “performance at the G-20 has been flawless.” TAP‘s Tim Fernholz added, “After the G-20, we can say that President Barack Obama had a successful entrance onto the world stage.” The WaPo‘s Steven Pearlstein concluded, “All in all, a pretty successful opening-night performance for President Obama on the international economic stage. He achieved most of what he wanted while allowing others to claim victory and allowing the United States to shed its Bush-era reputation for inflexibility and heavy-handedness. And by the standards of past summits, this one was full of accomplishment.”
And Slate‘s Fred Kaplan said the president “proved his mettle” at the summit, and “lived up to high expectations,” which is good news for the United States “returning to diplomatic basics.”
American leaders and diplomats have long struggled with the tension between their interests and ideals. Bush finessed the issue by pretending that the tension didn’t exist. In his second inaugural address, he declared that our interests and ideals coincided, invoking an appealing but empty syllogism: Tyranny sires terrorism; terrorism threatens our security; therefore, promoting democracy enhances our security; hence, our interests and our ideals are one. The problem was that terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy, and democracy is not necessarily a cure for it in any case. (Hamas won fair and free elections in the Palestinian territories — elections that Bush insisted on, over the advice of many, on the premise that Hamas couldn’t win the election because terrorism and democracy were incompatible.)
Obama seems to be aware of the tension between interests and ideals without letting it paralyze policymaking. In this sense, he is like most presidents in American history — and his foreign policy, or for the moment his approach to foreign policy, signals a restoration of what was once called statecraft: literally, the art of conducting the affairs of state. The term has always implied a meshing of interests and ideals with reality while navigating the shoals of a dangerous world. Leaders can try to reshape an agenda, but they can’t toss away maps or ignore laws of physics to get there. They have to deal with the world as it is, and that’s what Obama seems to be doing.
The final G20 agreement is far from perfect, but the White House is probably pleased with the president’s first turn as an international leader.