|Listening mode: Barack Obama takes a question at his closing press conference of the London summit|
At the end of Barack Obama’s press conference following the Group of 20 summit on Thursday, a large crowd of journalists did something journalists never do: they gave a politician a standing ovation (this reporter stayed neutral). [ . . . ]
Yet it will linger precisely because it matched the response – to all appearances sincere, over and above the supplication shown towards any occupant of the White House – by the leaders of the countries from which the journalists had travelled. The same cerebral and low-key approach used by Mr Obama in dealings with fellow leaders came out in often lengthy, but nuanced, answers to questions. “He actually answered the questions he was asked,” says one startled Asian reporter.
Four days into Mr Obama’s first big foray on the global stage – and with another four days to go – he is being accorded high ratings from almost every quarter barring his conservative critics back home. In part, this comes because of the contrast Mr Obama strikes with the widely derided George W. Bush. Partly it has been prompted by the celebrity cult the new leader has generated back home. But most of all, it is about Mr Obama’s unusual approach to foreigners. “I have come to listen, not to lecture,” he said several times this week. Much of the time he appeared to mean it.
Perhaps the least expected endorsement came from Dimitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, who until he met Mr Obama had developed a taste for rubbing Americans up the wrong way. Having on Wednesday unexpectedly invited him to visit this July, observing that Moscow’s warm weather that month would reflect the new warmth in US-Russian relations, Mr Medvedev said: “After this meeting, I am far more optimistic about the successful development of our relations and would like to thank President Obama for this opportunity.”
That response was echoed across the board – from Manmohan Singh, India’s 76-year-old prime minister, who asked for Mr Obama’s autograph on behalf of his daughter, to Britain’s Gordon Brown, whose frosty encounter with Mr Obama in Washington last month is now forgotten. Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state, says the reaction owes much to the president’s recognition that the US now operates in a multipolar world. While that is obvious to most, his predecessor made no such acknowledgement.
“President Obama embraced, and made his own, a shift in attitude towards a much more pluralistic world order in which the United States is still uniquely influential by virtue of its ability to persuade,” says Mr Talbott. “In essence, President Obama managed to identify himself with a form of American statesmanship that recognises the difference between being a leader and being a boss.”
To some extent Mr Obama is making a virtue out of necessity. Having inherited the biggest economic crisis in more than two generations, he finds himself in charge of a country that has attracted most of the blame for what some have dubbed the “Great Recession”. Not only is America seen as culpable for plummeting global trade; it is also arguably in a weaker position to impose its agenda than at any time since the Great Depression.
In these circumstances any American leader would be wise to apologise and declare an end to the era of unilateralism. But Mr Obama goes about the task with a conviction that owes much to the fact that he was campaigning on precisely this basis long before the subprime crisis hit Wall Street. “This trip has confirmed what I sensed about him almost two years ago at our first meeting,” says Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser. “He understands that the novelty of the worldwide political awakening requires a redefinition of America’s role.”
Following the G20 communiqué on Thursday – a lengthy text that Mr Obama helped broker among a potentially unruly collection of nations – he offered his own rationale for multilateralism. The remarks gave a hint of the enlightened self-interest that once made America popular.
“There has been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods [the 1944 conference that set up the postwar economic order],” he said. “Well, if it is just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy – you know, well, that’s an easier negotiation. But that’s not the world we live in. And it shouldn’t be the world that we live in. It’s not a loss for America. It’s an appreciation that Europe is now rebuilt and a powerhouse. Japan is rebuilt, is a powerhouse. China, India, these are all countries on the move. And that’s good.”
A second element of Mr Obama’s approach to diplomacy is his desire to speak directly to people – for reasons both tactical and habitual. On Friday he conducted a presidential “town hall”, a US election event in which voters can ask any questions of the candidate – but this time with foreigners as the audience. It took place at an indoor sports stadium on the outskirts of Strasbourg, where the 2,000 French and German citizens who were present repeatedly interrupted his answers with applause. Apart from the accents of the questioners, it could have been primary season in Iowa or Ohio.
The president will repeat the performance on Tuesday in Istanbul. The fact that he chose France, seldom a close friend of America, and a Muslim-majority country as the opening theatres for this experiment in presidential outreach will not be lost on conservatives back home, who this week accused Mr Obama of abandoning America’s interests in the ambitious joint statement he signed with Mr Medvedev and in the reformist G20 communiqué. “There is nothing more noble than public service,” Mr Obama told the audience on Friday, in the kind of observation destined to rile his domestic critics further.[ . . . ]
Should [failures] occur, people will say that it could not have happened to a nicer or a more talented president. But as Mr Obama told ovation-prone reporters in London on Thursday, a strategy of befriending other countries and earning their co-operation can also make it easier to respond effectively to crises when they hit. [ . . . ]