When US President Barack Obama walked into 10 Downing Street on Wednesday, one could hear the applause from outside. The Obama phenomenon has arrived in the seat of the British government, the BBC correspondent commented.
It was a reverent reception that reflected the high expectations awaiting the US president at this week's G-20 summit. Together with the event's host, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and the rest of the gathered heads of government and state, he is to help come up with a collective strategy to confront the global economic collapse.
"You are the new hope for all the citizens of the world," Brown told his eminent guest during a press conference on Wednesday. Obama had already arrived in London the previous day for a series of bilateral negotiations ahead of the summit, in an effort to set the tone for the G-20 talks.
The top item on the president's agenda is avoiding conflict—that much is clear. Even as French President Nicolas Sarkozy threatened internally that he would rather leave the summit early than agree to any "false compromises," Obama has adopted a more temperate tone.
In the weeks leading up to the summit, there has been no shortage of talk about the differences dividing the Europeans and Americans when it comes to how best to combat the financial crisis. Obama, though, said such concerns have been "vastly overstated." Almost all countries, he pointed out, have adopted measures to stimulate the economy—even those, he insisted, who have been accused of not having done enough. Equally inaccurate, he went on, is the perception that some countries are opposed to tighter regulation of the financial markets. The proposals made by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, he said, are "just as aggressive as those from other G-20 countries."
Obama was careful to be diplomatic when presenting his own position, eager to avoid any hint of reproach. The US, he said, cannot reverse the economic collapse on its own. In the past, he continued, the world economy has depended too much on the insatiable appetite of US consumers. In the future, that will have to change.
That, though, was as far as Obama went in urging other G-20 countries to stimulate domestic consumption. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will likely have breathed a sigh of relief—the German delegation had been concerned that Washington would arrive with concrete demands for more stimulus measures. Pressure, though, came from elsewhere. Japan joined developing countries in demanding further billions in public expenditures from Europe.
For Obama, though, there was more at stake than just the global economy. The G-20 summit provided him a welcome opportunity to continue the process of reassembling the shards of trans-Atlantic diplomacy left behind by his predecessor. Mini-summits held on the G-20 sidelines were equally important in this regard. On Wednesday, he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao for the first time. Relations with the two countries had suffered during George W. Bush's presidency. Obama, for his part, has for weeks been talking of a new beginning.
The US president has already communicated the new line in telephone conversations with Medvedev and Hu, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other high-ranking members of the administration have already visited Beijing and Moscow. But diplomacy has always relied on personal meetings between leaders. Hence the White House assigned a high importance to the meeting with Hu and Medvedev and talked of a "trip with high stakes."
Obama agreed with Medvedev to reduce the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia by one-third. A new disarmament treaty needs to be negotiated by the end of the year, when the 18-year-old START 1 treaty will run out. Nuclear disarmament would be a good beginning in the bid to improve relations between the two countries once more, Obama said. He spoke of "very real differences between the US and Russia," that he had no intention of "papering over." But there are also "common interests," he said, mentioning the fight against terrorism and the stabilization of the world economy as well as disarmament.
Diplomatic sensitivity was also required during the conversation with Chinese President Hu Jintao. The financial crisis has made it clear to both countries that they depend more closely on each other than they might like. China holds US government bonds to the value of $740 billion and has as a result become the superpower's largest creditor. Now the Chinese government is watching with anger as the Americans print money on a grand scale—and devalue China's dollar reserves in the process.
China is now calling for a new supra-national lead currency instead of the US dollar and it has found an ally in Russia. The challenge to the dollar is an attack on the US's hegemonic role. It is unlikely that the demand will become reality any time in the near future, but it shows a new self-confidence on the part of China and Russia. The mutual mistrust is even deeper when it comes to military questions. A recent Pentagon report warning of the threats caused by China's burgeoning military power elicited strong reactions in Beijing. The Chinese reacted by accusing the US of having a "Cold War mentality."
Although Obama did not manage to smooth out all the discordant notes on Wednesday, the meeting did not go badly. Indeed, he even accepted Hu's invitation to visit Beijing during the second half of the year.
The US's new de-escalation approach is also a recognition of reality. In the G-20 group, which is increasingly replacing the G-8 as an international forum, the US's leadership role is no longer taken for granted. It is becoming more difficult to reach agreements and more diplomatic skill is required. Obama said in London that he had come "to listen, not to lecture." It's a phrase that George W. Bush had also often used, but with Obama it feels more genuine.
Observers in London stressed what a relaxed impression the US president made at his first major appearance on the international stage. During his first day in London he didn't only talk about stimulus packages, lead currencies and Afghanistan. He talked about less pressing issues with the Queen over tea. Michelle had prepared for the meeting with great care, the president joked. Earlier, at a breakfast with the Browns, he had chatted away to their two small sons—about dinosaurs.