Crowds seem to cheer Barack Obama wherever he goes. The contrast to his predecessor, who had shoes thrown at him during a trip abroad in his last weeks in office, could hardly be more pronounced. The first black US president has such charisma that heads of state and government jostle to photo opportunities with him – no matter whether they, like Hugo Chavez and Hu Jintao, normally keep their distance from Washington or, like Gordon Brown and Silvio Berlusconi, have always emphasised friendship with America.
In less than 100 days in office, Obama started a host of internationally relevant inititatives, drawing a closing line under the era of George W. Bush. Among other things, Obama has
– put an end to CIA torture practices,
– made overtures to Iran and Cuba,
– drafted a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,
– designed a more active economic policy to address the global crisis,
– prompted the US Environment Protection Agency to class the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as dangerous and
– announced the long-term goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.
All these initiatives rely on multilateral cooperation to solve global problems. These are not arrogant solo efforts by the world’s surviving superpower. The passion with which Obama is fêted worldwide shows that his message is popular. What is in doubt, however, is the willingness and ability of other influential countries’ governments to rise to the occasion. The outcomes of the various summits in April were fairly disappointing.
The G20 meeting in London came first. Ahead of it, Obama had called for more and internationally coordinated economic stimulus programmes. What he got were just a few compromises, which were presented with massive PR spin as a $1.1 trillion package.
Essentially, the G20 resolutions are about strengthening the International Monetary Fund. IMF funding is to be trebled, enabling the Fund to extend more generous assistance to countries in need and – more important – to grant preventive loans so that countries do not get into dire straits in the first place. These decisions make sense, but they do not amount to a globally coordinated economic stimulus, and they certainly do not promote the structural changes necessary for making the global economy climate compatible.
The IMF is also to play a bigger role as an international finance supervisor, but major details still need to be hammered out. And so does an urgently needed institutional reform that will give developing and newly industrialising countries more say at the IMF.
Maybe Obama would have achieved more, had his treasury secretary Tim Geithner presented a more convincing strategy for stabilising the financial sector in the run-up to the summit. While it is certainly positive that the G20 nations are not working against one another in this crisis, a joint action programme could certainly contribute more to overcome the problems.
At the NATO Summit at Strasbourg and Kehl, Obama did not achieve much either. The Europeans welcome his recognition of the civilian dimensions of the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, they do not want to deploy troops for the joint mission. They are bent on leaving as much as possible of the unattractive business of military operations to the Americans.
The diffidence and aloofness of the important European allies is slowing the momentum that Obama would otherwise give to world affairs – and thus perhaps doing even more harm than the predictable irresponsibility of the presidents of Iran or North Korea. It is disappointing, of course, when Holocaust denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responds to offers of talks from Washington by redefining anti-racism as anti-Zionism. And Kim Jong Il’s missile test was an annoying reply to the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
But these are relatively marginalised actors on the world stage, who – unlike EU leaders – do not claim to be Washington’s partners in leadership. If Europe wants to face up to its responsibilities, it must not leave Obama in the lurch. He needs successes, especially in view of the mixed feelings about multilateralism in the United States.
The fact that the White House, after long deliberation, decided to stay away from the anti-racism conference in Geneva shows that Obama is alert to such skepticism. He knows, of course, that this boycott of a UN event will not do any major damage at the global level, especially since his country is on course to playing a more active role again in the context of UN human-rights policy.
The black man holding the highest office in the United States is immune to charges of racism – and the criticism levelled at Israel by various Muslim governments is patently overstated. Yes, the Gaza war was atrocious. But even Israeli media are saying so. Arabs who live in Israel have ample reason to complain – but hardly reason to migrate to neighbouring Arab countries, where they would enjoy fewer rights than where they live now. Anyone who accuses Israel of racism but keeps quiet about mass murder in Sudan is obviously not to be taken seriously.
Germany, Italy and the Netherlands also stayed away from the Geneva conference. Perhaps they considered that a gesture of support to Obama. They missed their chance. Obama has greater need of their help on other issues than racism, of all things.