It was a week of stunning contradictions for Barack Obama.
The president was showcased on the world stage, at the United Nations and the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. He promoted grand plans for global partnership on a range of topics — from climate change to nuclear disarmament to setting the world economy right.
Obama basked in a glow of international popularity not enjoyed by his predecessor. He received compliments he didn’t need: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez proclaimed “the sulfur is gone” (a reference to Chavez’s past U.N. rant calling George W. Bush the devil).
Yet the world won’t judge the American president by what he said, but by what he can deliver. Soaring visions of cooperation were yanked to Earth by last week’s revelation that Iran had set up a secret underground nuclear site, in defiance of international rules.
Nor did Obama’s rhetoric persuade Israel and the Palestinians to talk, or China to limit greenhouse gases, or NATO nations to announce more money and trainers to help Afghans.
Do the president’s appeals for more global cooperation make sense? Yes, but ...
Global partnerships are vital in some cases, and strategically useful in others. But they provide no panacea for America’s problems. Nor will they produce results unless Obama emerges as a strong international leader.
So where is a push for more global cooperation essential and where is it oversold?
Obama has no choice but to pursue greater cooperation in dealing with the global economics. The old G-8 that grouped the United States with the richest Europeans and Japan (and reluctantly included Russia) is outmoded.
It was replaced in Pittsburgh by the G-20, a confab of wealthy and developing nations, including China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil. America no longer provides the growth engine that can revive the global economy.
We, and the world, need China’s cooperation. Our hurting economy needs to save more and import less and booming China needs to save less and import more. Joint efforts are also essential for better international regulation of banks, and for halting climate change.
Obama has also made a calculation that greater global cooperation on disarmament provides the only slim chance to curb Iran’s nuclear activities. This is a risky bet. But the discovery of Iran’s secret enrichment facility may help the president.
Obama headed a meeting of the U.N. Security Council last week and stressed his commitment to the concept of a world free of nuclear weapons. Such a commitment may seem foolish given the continued defiance of U.N. resolutions by Iran and North Korea.
Yet conservative Republicans such as Henry Kissinger and George Shultz also endorse this principle. They believe that if existing nuclear powers reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals, they may create global momentum for tighter rules to prevent the emergence of new nuclear powers.
I confess I was a skeptic. But Obama’s strong U.N. stand against nuclear proliferation — and his pledge of U.S. cooperation — may prove crucial to curbing Iran’s weapons. It may help in getting stronger sanctions against Tehran — if the Iranians refuse to come clean.
“What Obama did at the United Nations strengthens his hand,” says nuclear expert Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation advocating a nuclear-weapons-free world.
We don’t yet know the whole story of how and when U.S. intelligence discovered Iran’s secret facility, but Tehran has now admitted its existence. This may account for Russian President Dmitry A. Medvedev’s more accommodating statements last week on the possibility of tough anti-Iran sanctions. (Russia was also influenced by Obama’s decision to shift gears on installing missile defenses in Central Europe, a program Moscow hated.)
Obama stressed at the G-20 that the mood toward Iran had shifted: “What has changed is that the international community has now spoken.” Even countries reluctant to discuss sanctions might now change their mind, he said.
Even so, I admit that all the stress on international cooperation makes me nervous. In his opening address to the United Nations, Obama sounded as if a global collective of nations could operate on its own.
It will take tremendous nudging by Obama to corral Russia and China to agree to tougher Iran sanctions, and to work against nuclear proliferation. It will take presidential leadership to avoid trade wars that could undermine efforts to revive the global economy.
In the end, the success of Obama’s efforts to strengthen international cooperation will depend on his leadership skills — on health care, Afghanistan, and so on. His ability to encourage global cooperation will depend on what he can deliver at home and abroad.