Obama at G-20 summit: Popular president, unpopular plan


At the heart of President Obama’s approach to foreign policy has been a promise to end the “unilateral” strategies of his predecessor and heal bruised relations with America’s allies.

But as Obama makes his presidential debut on the diplomatic stage at the Group of 20 summit in London this week, he faces leaders from both Europe and Asia who have rejected some of his most important proposals for rescuing the global economy, including his call for more stimulus spending.

Despite the diplomatic niceties, that means Obama’s vision of himself as a conciliator will face challenges from the start.


In many ways, Obama is the president that world leaders have been saying they wanted. He has reversed some of President George W. Bush’s most controversial policies, ordering the shutdown of the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba and ending aggressive interrogation of terrorism suspects.

And Obama has made it clear that he supports a much more multilateral approach to world problems than Bush, breaking with his predecessor’s notion of “a coalition of the willing,” which in practice often meant a coalition of those who followed the U.S. lead with a minimum of criticism.

“The president and America are going to listen in London, as well as to lead,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said. “Many of the things that we’ve done over the past couple of weeks . . . demonstrate that America is leading by example. We’ve taken key steps to restore economic growth in this country, to save and create jobs and to put money back in people’s pockets.”

Across Europe, Obama’s poll numbers are as high or higher than his substantial approval ratings at home. But neither popularity nor a more conciliatory approach has prevented some foreign leaders from brushing off Obama’s proposals for recovery.

German and French leaders have shunted aside the president’s call for increased government spending to stimulate their economies. The Czech Republic’s prime minister even characterized the U.S. proposal as charting “the road to hell.”

Instead of more stimulus spending, European and Asian leaders want more government regulation of the financial system. And they have been openly skeptical of Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner’s regulatory plans, suggesting they don’t go far enough.


Nor have foreign leaders responded wholeheartedly to Obama’s call for a greater commitment to the war in Afghanistan.

“European governments, for the sake of pleasing Obama, are not going to make concessions on these fundamental interests and political requirements,” said Reginald Dale, director of the Transatlantic Media Network and senior fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS.

The G-20 summit, which will focus almost entirely on the global economic crisis, on Thursday will bring together leaders of the major developed economies of Europe and Asia, as well as the European Union and such emerging economic powers as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. Obama is also expected to hold more wide-ranging meetings with some individual leaders, including China’s Hu Jintao and Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev.

Before returning to Washington, he will visit Turkey, one of the United States’ most important allies in the Muslim world. There too Obama will encounter leaders who are not wholly in sync with American policies.

Especially in Europe, there is deep anger over what is seen as the role of reckless American financial institutions, and a complacent Bush administration, in creating the catastrophe.

The differences between the United States and its allies involve not just contending interests, but national attitudes and historical experiences.

On the question of more stimulus spending, for example, Americans have grown relatively accepting of government deficits. European Union policymakers set limits on the budget deficits member countries can run.

Conversely, European countries have a history of far more government involvement with business than the U.S.

European governments formed a consortium to launch the Airbus as a competitor to American jetliners, for instance, but Americans are having a hard time with the idea of government intervention to avert a collapse of the domestic auto industry.

Meantime, China has been questioning the dominance of the U.S. dollar and suggesting the creation of a new currency reserve to replace it as the world standard.

Despite these differences, many expect G-20 leaders to make cooperation the watchword at the summit.

Michael Froman, Obama’s deputy national security advisor for international economic affairs, suggests the G-20 nations are much more in sync about what to do than the recent public statements from France, Germany and the Czech Republic might suggest.

“I think going into the summit, there’s a broad consensus among the G-20 as to what needs to be done in these areas to restore growth and regulatory reform efforts,” Froman said.

Steven Schrage, who holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at CSIS, predicted that any differences would be papered over. “If there are big disagreements, they’ll have kind of innocuous language that kind of muddles the differences,” he said.

At the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit that follows the economic meetings by a couple of days, Obama will encounter another point of difference: He wants increased military commitments in Afghanistan. But NATO leaders have been signaling that they aren’t interested in dramatically increasing their troop presence.

Launching into major diplomatic meetings just two months into the Obama administration, with the president’s economic team still being assembled, has its risks.

But the summit dates were set before Obama took office, and some analysts think the timing actually helps him turn the page from the old American foreign policy to the new.

“What Obama has been saying is, ‘We want to listen; we want to talk,’ ” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and former National Security Council senior director for Russia, who is now at the Brookings Institution. “There may be some advantage to not having our plan set in concrete.”