In this precarious and uncertain political environment at home, President Barack Obama is on a quest for friends abroad. Within less than a week upon returning from an extended post-midterm Asian regional spin, the President clocks Air Force One miles to Lisbon, Portugal for a two-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit on Afghanistan.
While it’s not unusual for American presidents to hit the global circuit in the wake of party losses at midterm polls, this particular president attempts to find comfort in what is perceived as one of his strengths: foreign policy. Politically, it’s smart since the president finds his influence greatly diminished and challenged from both sides of the aisle. If it’s not a Republican majority in the House prompting public displays of humility from the East Room then it’s Democrats actively whispering for one-term or possible primary challenges in 2012 (something unheard of when President Clinton faced similar issues in 1994). Pitching presidential tent in faraway places not only affords a needed reprieve from the drama of elections back home, but it also re-establishes his authority and relevance as Leader of the Free World.
At least, that’s what was expected. Yet, the president found himself as challenged abroad as he was embattled domestically. Before entering the annual G-20 summit of ranking economies last week, President Obama was certain he could secure an automobile-based trade deal from rapidly growing South Korea. If anything, the president assumed, South Korea would be eager to put the final touches on an agreement certain to offer it leverage against China, the seemingly unstoppable and now undisputed giant of global economies behind the United States.
Yet, the South Korea deal stalled, perhaps buckling under Seoul’s annoyance at the historic India/Japan deal or wobbling under the weight of pressure from U.S. beef manufacturers wanting to break into the lucrative Korean beef market. And, there is always the North Korea factor and internal pressures from Koreans increasingly impatient with the large U.S. military presence that has left an indelible mark on their country for the past 60-years.
Still, based on that history of long ties between the two countries, a deal with South Korea should have been one of the easier achievements prior to the G-20. And it was essential given the fact the G-20 was scheduled to meet in the South Korean capitol. Instead, the failure to secure commitments left the president unusually exposed during the summit. Typically, it’s the United States that sets the agenda for the G-20 meeting thereby setting the overall tone. In this particular instance, the U.S. found itself on the defensive with emerging economies such as India setting the tone or smaller European titans such as Germany in outright defiance. Even China, while unsettling world markets with its plans to raise interest rates and not budging on how to address ballooning trade deficits, used damaged U.S. standing at the summit as an opportunity to deflect attention from global nervousness about its growth.
The botched South Korean deal became the opening tipping point for countries to unleash their dissatisfaction with the United States on a number of levels. In many ways, it was posturing or a strategy to impress restless (or in some cases repressed) folks in their countries: “Hey – look at me. I’m taking on an American president.” Heads of the G-20 had already watched election results on Nov. 2 to gauge President Obama’s power, judging him as politically vulnerable at home. Yet, the inability to accomplish a trade deal in Seoul triggered convenient belligerence from world leaders – thereby compounding the president’s problems back home.
To regain his political footing in Washington, the president will need a major foreign policy achievement in the wake of perceived failure at the G-20. Perhaps some good news out of Afghanistan or a breakthrough in the Palestinian/Israeli peace talks. There is still a window of opportunity for that, but the jury is still out on how much resistance he’ll face from House Republicans regarding his international agenda. What is certain is that the president could find political safety in branding a stronger image abroad. But, he’d be wise to combine superior intellect with a few pages from his predecessor’s play book.