STRASBOURG, France – President Barack Obama is learning the limits of personal diplomacy.
Warmly greeted by European leaders and the public alike as a welcome relief from his predecessor, Obama’s appeal hasn’t enabled to him to bridge differences on key economic and military issues with American allies.
Obama left the G-20 summit in London without securing any further commitment by individual countries to enact more stimulus spending. And Saturday he departs from NATO’s gathering in this French-German border town without a pledge by allies to send further combat troops to Afghanistan to bolster the American military surge there.
In both cases, Obama was quick to note these were only the first steps – a “strong down payment” as he called the NATO commitments in Afghanistan — and that he expected more help would be coming in the future.
But in his first real taste of diplomacy, Obama is finding out that, like in domestic politics, the gushing praise that other leaders may bestow doesn’t necessarily translate into support for the entirety of his agenda. In other words, simply not being George W. Bush wasn’t enough.
At NATO, the president touted the 5,000 additional trainers and security forces and dismissed questions about why nations weren’t sending additional combat forces – even though the contribution is dwarfed by the 21,000 new American troops Obama has committed to the conflict since taking office.
The NATO summit “was designed to discuss strategy as opposed to attract pledges,” he said, noting, “The trainers we are sending in are no less important than those in direct combat with the Taliban."
Even France’s Nicolas Sarkozy managed to disappoint, despite gushing over Obama as “a U.S. president who wants to change the world and who understands that the world does not boil down to simply American frontiers and borders.”
At the same news conference Friday, Sarkozy said bluntly that, no, there would be no French boots on the ground.
Obama received a similar reaction from Germany’s Angela Merkel – a warm embrace and a cold shoulder to a big combat presence there.
The summit in London was equally disappointing. There, Obama had hoped European allies would pump cash directly into their economies to reverse a global economic meltdown, just the way Obama did with a $787 billion stimulus package at home. But the individual countries stopped short and only committed another $1.1 trillion in new International Monetary Fund lending and other guarantees for poor nations – not at all what Obama had in mind.
Asked Saturday about the refusal of more countries to inject additional cash into their economies, Obama initially complained of not wanting to “circle back and have a whole new press conference about the G-20 summit.”
But he insisted that he had never wanted to “dictate” economic policy to other nations in the first place. “What we said was that all of us have to take important steps to deal with economic growth,” Obama said.
He construed as a victory the notion that the countries at the G-20 had committed to consider further steps to bolster the economy if the previous and current steps aren’t working.
To be sure, Obama can come home feeling like he notched some significant accomplishments on his European tour so far – not least of which was holding his own comfortably on his maiden voyage onto the world stage. He also began to forge personal relationships that he said several times he believes will pay off down the road.
At NATO, he did get the member nations to unanimously endorse his Afghanistan strategy, focused on driving al-Qaida from its safe havens in Pakistan, and to commit trainers and $100 million in new aid.
In London, the G-20 avoided one outcome that would have been all but impossible for Obama to bear – the idea of a global super-regulator that could reach into companies in any nation, including those on Wall Street, an idea backed by Sarkozy.
The White House took pains to showcase Obama’s new standing as a global deal-maker, saying it was Obama that personally help broker a deal in London between the French and the Chinese on reporting the existence of global tax havens. On Saturday, aides said it was Obama who helped convince the Turks to drop their objection to a Dutch leader taking the helm at NATO.
And if nothing else, Obama served notice to the Europeans that the days of America-bashing – perhaps thinly disguised as Bush-bashing – need to come to an end, both because there’s a new president and because their two sides of the Atlantic face common dangers from terrorism.
But Obama couldn’t completely disguise that his first trip abroad as the American president was a bit of an eye-opener. He hinted at this Welcome to The NFL moment in taking an open-ended question from an Austrian reporter at NATO about his impressions so far of the continent.
“It was also interesting to see that political interaction in Europe is not that different from the United States Senate,” he noted. There’s a lot of – I don’t know what the term is in Austrian– wheeling and dealing. And people are pursuing their interests and everybody has their own particular issues and their own particular politics.”