Vast multinational conferences, like the G20 summit in London, are useful mainly for the "bilaterals"—the one-on-one side-room conversations—and, in these forums, President Barack Obama is living up to high expectations.
Which is to say, the United States seems to be returning to diplomatic basics—a development that in the wake of the last eight years is practically revolutionary.
Take Obama's meeting on April 1 with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which produced an unusually substantive 19-paragraph joint statement laying out a broad but specific agenda—all stemming from a cleareyed, even somewhat steely grasp of what international relations are all about.
"What I believe we began today," Obama said at a joint press conference afterward, "is a very constructive dialogue that will allow us to work on issues of mutual interest."
The italics are mine, but a "senior administration official" also drew attention to the phrase in a background press briefing and contrasted the approach with George W. Bush's first meeting with a Russian president, after which he proclaimed that he'd looked into Vladimir Putin's eyes and seen his soul.
The Medvedev meeting, then, marked the occasion when Obama officially pushed that "reset button." The move was recognized as such by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who noted a "new atmosphere of trust," stemming not just from personal camaraderie—which, he said, creates only "the illusion of good relations"—but from recognition of "mutual interests" and a "readiness to listen to each other." Lavrov added, "We missed this much in the past years."
Former Bush aides have told me that their boss got a bad rap for his remark about Putin's eyes and soul. When he made the comment on his first trip to Europe in June 2001, he had decided to scrap the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty so that he could build a missile-defense system. He felt he had to assure Putin that the decision was not aimed at Russia, which at the time was extraordinarily weak; he also wanted to cultivate Russia as a counterweight to China. In short, Bush's remark was driven, these officials said, by motives of grand strategy.
Maybe so, but that only makes his statement seem daffier. Did Bush believe that chumming up to Putin, treating him like a "good man," would melt his resistance and lure him to our side? The only question is whether, deep inside, the ex-KGB spy gaped at Bush's naiveté or bristled at his condescension.
What Putin would have been keener to hear at that moment—what all leaders with an understanding of history and the requirements of their office want to know in diplomatic dealings generally—is what was on the table that could serve his nation's interests.