WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will find his diplomatic clout tested at twin summits on his own turf beginning today. The big global problems are the economic mess in Europe and finding scarce money to boost a postwar Afghanistan – and in both cases the solutions lie mostly overseas.
Still, given a home field advantage in an election year, Obama will try to use it.
By offering solidarity with Europe and reminders that he is steering the Afghan war to a close, Obama will be promoting his re-election interests as well as national ones, underscoring contrasts with Mitt Romney, his rival for the presidency.
Summit locations rotate around the globe, and Obama has ended up with a bounty of them – first an Asia-Pacific gathering in his birthplace of Hawaii last November and now both the G-8 economic summit at the presidential retreat in Maryland and a NATO security conference in Chicago, his hometown and re-election headquarters.
For four days, Obama will host global meetings on his stages, though the most pressing problems reflect how much is out of his hands.
For voters, Obama will keep the focus on the economy. For the watching world, he will embrace the trans-Atlantic alliance as a cornerstone of U.S. policy at a time when Romney has accused him of taking inspiration from “Socialist Democrats in Europe” and has declared: “Europe isn’t working in Europe. It’s not going to work here.”
Europe’s debt crisis poses huge potential to drag down the American economy and Obama’s bid for a second term. The financial worries will dominate discussions at the Camp David summit of major industrialized nations on Friday and Saturday, with Obama expected mainly to listen and prod Europe toward more growth and less budget-slashing austerity.
The United States is not in the lead of that fight and does not want to be, strapped with its own unemployment concerns and mounting debt. The White House has put more focus on insulating itself from the contagion by pursuing jobs ideas it hopes to get through a divided Congress at home.
“If he can’t offer his wallet, he can at least offer his shoulder,” said Lauren Blumenfeld, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a think tank that focuses on relations between North America and Europe. “He can feel their pain and offer inspirational support. I think there is an opportunity.”
Still recovering from a giant recession, the U.S., through Obama’s government, has been sharing its experience with European partners and pushing for what it considers a smarter balance between stimulus and cuts abroad. Obama has been blunt in saying the United States has done it the right way. As he told a campaign fundraising audience: “Europe is still in a difficult state – partly because they didn’t take some of the decisive steps that we took early on in this recession.”
Expectations for summit breakthroughs are low for a number of reasons, among them that the Group of Eight meeting is no long considered the chief forum for weighing action on global economic challenges. That title belongs to the G-20, which includes developing giants such as India and China and will convene in June in Mexico.
As for Obama, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said: “It’s not a question of leverage, because ultimately the incentive for the Europeans to act is their own economic future.”
Yet in conversations deep in the mountain woods and away from cameras, Obama may have his best chance to hold sway with the old-guard powers. The G-8 nations are the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Canada, Russia and Japan.
“What can Obama do? He can say, ‘Look, guys, I’ll provide the leadership for America, but you have to provide the leadership where you have to,’” said Karel Lannoo, the head of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies. “The best thing he can do is speak to (new French President Francois) Hollande.”
Hollande, a Socialist, just took office on Tuesday after riding an anti-austerity wave and ousting Obama ally Nicolas Sarkozy from office. He will have a sudden relationship with Obama, starting at the White House on Friday before both leaders join their peers for the G-8. Ahead of his arrival in Washington, Hollande met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and said that “everything that can contribute to growth must be put on the table by everyone” – a message the White House likes.
Never before has a president held such a gathering at Camp David; Obama has never even hosted one foreign dignitary there before now. Compared to his first G-8 meeting less than three years ago, he finds himself a senior member: Japan, Russia, Britain, France and Italy have all turned over their leaders since then. New-old Russian President Vladimir Putin is sending his predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev.
On Afghanistan, Obama has already telegraphed the message for Chicago, one which also fits his we’re-getting-out-of-war election theme.
NATO will get more specific about putting Afghanistan in the lead of the combat mission in 2013 in advance of the end of the war itself by the end of 2014.
And although the Sunday and Monday summit is not a donor conference, Obama will come seeking money commitments from nations inside and outside the alliance to help the Afghan army defend the country – and potentially prevent it from slipping into a chaotic haven of trouble – when the world alliance pulls out.
The cost is expected to run more than $4 billion a year, and the United States is trying to reduce its share of the burden as Afghanistan’s largest patron. The trouble for Obama is that’s a tough sell. Many countries have their own strapped economies and diminishing public appetite to build up another nation after a long, costly war.
American voters will hear again that the war is ending. What they won’t hear, Obama officials say, are new details on U.S. troop withdrawals.
The United States is expected to draw down to about 68,000 troops by September, and Obama is not yet ready to discuss the pace after that.
Follow Ben Feller at http://twitter.com/BenFellerDC