PITTSBURGH — President Barack Obama’s public diplomacy is as graceful and seemingly effortless as that three-point jump shot he hit with TV cameras running during the campaign.
Back then, he was a candidate introducing himself to the country. Now he is in the real game, and real diplomacy has much more to it than words. His public diplomacy skills were on display Wednesday when President Obama spoke before the U.N. General Assembly. He was warmly greeted and stressed the need for nations to work together to solve the issues that connect us all from climate change to terrorism.
The words, as always, were eloquent. The world’s leaders nodded their heads in agreement. President Obama defined “a new era of engagement with the world” after eight years of President George W. Bush’s clumsy unilateralism and contempt for the U.N.
And presumably, President Obama will do the same when he speaks here in Pittsburgh at the Group of 20 where the leaders of the world’s top 20 economic powerhouses will gather to address the global economy.
But in the real game of statecraft, Obama has not proven himself. Not yet.
In the first eight months of his presidency, he has had to focus on the urgent matter of the global economic crisis. The gathering here in Pittsburgh will likely be a mutual admiration society at least among the wealthy Western nations, formerly known as the G8. They’ll be patting themselves on the back for working together and managing to avert a global economic catastrophe.
Things are better, for sure.
But at this gathering, there will also be the developing countries who harbor a great deal of resentment for the impact this meltdown had on their struggling economies. Western greed and lack of regulation left them holding the bag of misery for their populations that live in poverty. And even among the G8 leaders, there will be the uncomfortable silences among friends about the war in Afghanistan.
The counter-insurgency campaign is going horribly, even by the estimates of the Obama administration’s own generals. Members of the G20 who are also part of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy and others, are growing tired of the war and the steady stream of flag-draped coffins that come home. They are having an increasingly difficult time selling the war back home. President Obama’s lack of clarity about the mission in Afghanistan has hurt him in keeping that coalition together and the uncertainty has weakened the alliance there.
On the issue of nuclear proliferation, Obama has had no more success than Bush in applying the necessary leverage to get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons. And Obama’s posture toward Iran has been confusing. Early on, he spoke of dialogue and in his speech in early June to the Muslim world he seemed to put out a hand of reconciliation. But then, just weeks later, the contested elections in Iran and the extraordinary street protests changed that equation and left Obama’s Iran policy appearing to vacillate. In the bare-knuckle diplomacy of the Middle East, he looked weak.
And while we’re in that neighborhood, there is Israel-Palestine. President Obama has chosen an outstanding special envoy in George Mitchell who will certainly apply his dogged determination to getting the two sides to talk. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas are cagey veterans of the game and they will fully engage only when the president of the United States engages. The mini summit Obama pulled together in New York was, to those who have watched the “peace process” for well over a decade, an embarrassment. It was a last-minute effort to save face on the thorny issues of the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian before he confronted the world body at the U.N. It was clear he had not yet done the hard work of diplomacy to set the stage for any meaningful talks.
On climate change, President Obama has spoken powerfully about the danger it presents. But the Democrats cap-and-trade bill faces a steep climb in Congress. And as the mornings grow cold and autumn sets in the critically important Copenhagen conference on climate change set for December is closing in. If the president cannot persuade the Democrat-controlled Senate and the country to reduce carbon emissions than how will he convince the rest of the world to join him in that call?
And so back to that jump shot.
He rolled his sleeves, took a moment to concentrate and then his lean frame slowly arched back as he released the ball with perfect backspin. He let his hands hang in the air as he watched it drop. It defined ease and confidence and athleticism, a black Kennedy.
But it was just a showboat jump shot. The hoop equivalent to public diplomacy.
Real diplomacy, like real basketball, is a contact sport. In the real game, you are covered and often double-teamed. And in the real game, the clock is running down.