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.
At his press conference on Wednesday, Obama emphasized that the United States and Russia have serious differences and that he wouldn't paper over them; from the start, he told Medvedev to forget about recognition of Abkhazia or South Ossetia as independent states, and he protested the beating of prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov. But Obama also said he wouldn't let those differences get in the way of vital matters—such as nuclear proliferation, counterterrorism, regional conflicts, and international trade—where cooperation could promote (again) the interests of both countries.
The only thing remarkable about this sentiment is that compared with policy statements of just a few months ago, it's so remarkable.
Bush's diplomacy tended to the black and white: I get along with you, or I don't; you're with us, or you're against us; you're a terrorist, or you're opposed to terrorists. This approach led—and, in general, leads—to disaster not because it's moralistic, but because it so egregiously misapprehends the world and leaves us with so little leverage to affect it.
For instance, Obama will almost certainly open up talks with Syria as a means of isolating Iran and cutting off both countries' links with Hezbollah. Bush always opposed any contact—and vetoed efforts by some of his top officials to go that route—because Syria supported terrorists. By this argument, had someone with this view been president during World War II, the United States wouldn't have struck up an alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany on the grounds that Stalin wasn't much less evil than Hitler—and we would have faced catastrophic defeat in our high moral dudgeon.
This is, in part, why Obama has abandoned the phrase "global war on terror." It implies that all terrorist movements form a single bloc of equal weight and danger; and it therefore prevents us from even contemplating the notion of splitting the movements apart or playing off one against the others. One definition of skillful diplomacy is to unite allies and divide enemies; Bush's pronouncements tended to do the precise opposite.
To the extent that Bush racked up some successes in his last two years, it was because he abandoned his precepts. The "surge" in Iraq achieved as much as it did (in tactical military terms, anyway) because it coincided with a new strategy that forged alliances with Sunni insurgents—former enemies—in the interest of defeating a larger common enemy. (Too bad the war's first four years killed so many people and tore up so much of the country.) The North Koreans agreed to halt their plutonium reprocessing because Bush finally agreed to hold serious negotiations. (Too bad they built and tested a nuclear weapon in the time that he refused to negotiate as a matter of misplaced principle.)
American leaders and diplomats have long struggled with the tension between their interests and ideals. Bush finessed the issue by pretending that the tension didn't exist. In his second inaugural address, he declared that our interests and ideals coincided, invoking an appealing but empty syllogism: Tyranny sires terrorism; terrorism threatens our security; therefore, promoting democracy enhances our security; hence, our interests and our ideals are one. The problem was that terrorism is a tactic, not an enemy, and democracy is not necessarily a cure for it in any case. (Hamas won fair and free elections in the Palestinian territories—elections that Bush insisted on, over the advice of many, on the premise that Hamas couldn't win the election because terrorism and democracy were incompatible.)
Obama seems to be aware of the tension between interests and ideals without letting it paralyze policymaking. In this sense, he is like most presidents in American history—and his foreign policy, or for the moment his approach to foreign policy, signals a restoration of what was once called statecraft: literally, the art of conducting the affairs of state. The term has always implied a meshing of interests and ideals with reality while navigating the shoals of a dangerous world. Leaders can try to reshape an agenda, but they can't toss away maps or ignore laws of physics to get there. They have to deal with the world as it is, and that's what Obama seems to be doing.
It doesn't mean he'll succeed. His focus on interests suggests he understands that some nations' interests conflict with ours and might be impervious to reconciliation, no matter how fervent the diplomatic effort. The test of his presidency may lie in what he does when a conflict of this sort sparks a crisis.