WASHINGTON (AP) — Over the past two weeks, President Barack Obama has argued with Chinese President Xi Jinping over cybersecurity, consulted with world leaders over Syria and trade, declared his desire to reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons, and embraced the uncertain steps toward reconciliation in Afghanistan.
In each case, the president is aligning himself with a process that has a distant goal and is fraught with possible failure.
And as he prodded foreign allies and U.S. competitors, he's gotten a good dose of pushback for his troubles.
In Berlin on Wednesday, Obama warned that the European Union could "lose a generation" if it doesn't adjust its economic policies to tackle high youth unemployment. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has argued for debt-ridden eurozone countries to first deal with their fiscal problems, insisted her government was committed to helping its European partners in the crisis-hit nations. "If we were conducting policies that would harm other countries," she argued, "we would harm ourselves."
She countered with her own words of caution over the Obama administration's secret collection of phone records and surveillance of foreign Internet traffic. "People have concerns, precisely concerns that there may be some kind of blanket, across-the-board gathering of information," she said. "There needs to be proportionality" between security and freedom, she added, and made clear that her private talks about it with Obama were not the end of the subject.
It was a polite punch-counterpunch between vital allies — an exchange that won't damage a strong relationship. But it illustrated how in a 21st century world order, Western powers are not beholden to the United States as they once were and Obama's ability to find agreement or build consensus is often limited and regularly tested.
The centerpiece of Obama's visit to Berlin was a speech at the historic Brandenburg Gate, once a symbol of the Cold War, where he called for negotiations with the Russians to reduce U.S. nuclear weapons by one-third and called for cutting the number of tactical warheads in Europe. "Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be," he said.
The words were barely out of his mouth when a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, Ohio Rep. Michael Turner, accused him of appeasement, and Russian officials were playing down Obama's proposal. A foreign policy aide to President Vladimir Putin said any further arms reduction would have to involve countries other than just Russia and the United States.
"The situation is now far from what it was in the '60s and '70s, when only the USA and the Soviet Union discussed arms reduction," the aide, Yuri Ushakov, said.
Just two days earlier, Obama and Putin had a stare-down over Syria. Putin refused to back down from Russia's support for the government of President Bashar Assad, forcing other leaders of the Group of Eight industrial economies meeting in Northern Ireland to call for a negotiated Syrian peace settlement while disagreeing on whether that should require Assad to go.
With Obama now ready to supply arms to Syrian rebels, Putin concluded the G-8 summit by pointedly warning that the opposition forces include criminals whom he likened to the killers of an off-duty British soldier last month in London. "Do the Europeans want to provide such people with weapons?" he said.
Even a potentially encouraging development in Afghanistan this week took a quick sour turn when Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared he would not pursue peace talks with the Taliban unless the United States steps out of the negotiations. On Tuesday, Obama had praised Karzai for agreeing to engage in talks and "taking this courageous step."
A day later, Obama had to concede the setback. "We had anticipated that at the outset, there were going to be some areas of friction, to put it mildly, in getting this thing off the ground," he said Wednesday.
European leaders meeting at the G-8 did point to one significant advancement — a decision to begin talks toward a possible trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. But as far as achievements go, this one simply started the process. And it came with a price. Obama had wanted the talks to proceed without conditions. But France won a concession when the European Union chiefs agreed to exclude European film, radio and TV industries from the negotiations. It was the first sign of the difficulties that lay ahead. The first negotiation session is scheduled for Washington next month.
No relationship better illustrates the foreign policy challenges for Obama than that between the U.S. and China.
Meeting with Xi in California two weeks ago, Obama confronted the Chinese president over U.S. claims of Chinese cyberhacking of U.S. companies, warning that the issue could damage the fundamental relationship between the two countries. "We had a very blunt conversation about cybersecurity," Obama told PBS interviewer Charlie Rose this week.
After the meeting, Chinese officials said Xi opposed all forms of cyberspying and claimed no responsibility for attacks against the U.S. "Cybersecurity should not become the root cause of mutual suspicion and frictions between our two countries. Rather, it should be a new bright spot in our cooperation," said Yang Jiechi, Xi's senior foreign policy adviser.
The frank discussion, however, presented a start by elevating cybersecurity to the top of the U.S.-China agenda.
If Obama has broken ground in his past two weeks of international diplomacy, it is to lay fragile foundations to build upon — important beginnings, but, judging from the reaction, not yet breakthrough achievements in foreign policy.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Jim Kuhnhenn covers the White House for The Associated Press.
Follow Jim Kuhnhenn on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jkuhnhenn