A Diminished Obama Heads to Russia for G-20 Meeting

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Not even a month ago, President Obama canceled a planned summit meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin, citing Russia's decision to grant asylum to Edward J. Snowden as evidence of a broader deterioration of relations. "We weren't going to have a summit for the sake of appearances," the president's deputy national security adviser, Benjamin J. Rhodes, said then.

On Thursday Mr. Obama will arrive here for a meeting of the Group of 20 nations, and it is he as much as Mr. Putin who has to worry about appearances.

He heads into the gathering facing questions about his leadership and his policies at home and abroad -- from his threat to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria to efforts to revive the flagging global economy to Mr. Snowden's disclosures about American eavesdropping on some of the very leaders who will be here with him, including Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil.

Given diplomatic niceties, any public confrontation at the newly refurbished Constantine Palace on the Gulf of Finland near here is unlikely, but Mr. Obama's standing on the world stage has undoubtedly suffered from the recent turmoil. That has complicated his relations not only with Russia and China, but also with allies like Germany and Britain, which have refused to endorse military action against the forces of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, even if they share Mr. Obama's concern about the use of chemical weapons.

Syria, even more than tensions between the United States and Russia generally, will overshadow the annual meeting of the G-20 leaders, which is normally devoted to the world's economy. Under Russia's leadership, this year's agenda deals with economic stimulus, currency rates and efforts to discourage corporate tax evasion.

After reports of the chemical attack emerged on Aug. 21, Mr. Putin's vehement opposition to any foreign intervention seemed at first to leave Russia embarrassingly isolated in its defense of Mr. Assad's government. But in the weeks since, other nations and leaders have moved closer to his insistence that any intervention would be unlawful without the authorization of the United Nations.

"I want to draw your attention to one absolutely fundamental fact," Mr. Putin said in a lengthy interview with The Associated Press and the Russian state television network Channel One, published Wednesday. "In accordance with applicable international law, the authorization of the use of force against a sovereign state can only be given by the Security Council of the United Nations," he said. "Any other reasons, or methods, to justify the use of force against an independent and sovereign state are unacceptable and cannot be qualified as anything other than aggression."

In lieu of the meeting he was to have held with Mr. Putin in Moscow, Mr. Obama arrived in Sweden on Wednesday and defended his position on the imperative to respond to a gross violation of the international ban on chemical weapons, even as his senior advisers continued to make the case to a skeptical Congress at home.

"I didn't set a red line," Mr. Obama said in Sweden, referring to his remark last year, later described as off-the-cuff, that the use of such weapons would cause him to rethink his evident reluctance to involve the United States deeply in the war in Syria, which has now claimed more than 100,000 lives. "The world set a red line."

Mr. Obama has picked up support, albeit tepid in many cases, from the Republican Congressional leadership for military action in Syria.

He can also claim credit for a steadily reviving United States economy, even as many formerly robust developing countries are experiencing weakness for the first time in years because of falling commodity prices and sagging currencies. Yet, even here, he faces challenges from countries that traditionally have been friends.

India, which also publicly opposed military action in Syria in a statement that refrained from assigning blame for the chemical attacks, has grown weary of American economic policies as its own domestic woes have deepened, though Mr. Obama himself remains fairly popular.

India's currency, the rupee, has lost 20 percent of its value since the spring, when Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, signaled an impending end to large-scale bond purchases, prompting foreign capital to flee emerging markets. "I think there is fatigue, quite frankly," said Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of The Hindu, a leading newspaper. "Right now, the Indian economy is taking a beating because of what is happening in the U.S. Then there is a Syria crisis, which he has escalated, leading to higher oil prices."

Of Mr. Obama in particular, he added, "There's not too much enthusiasm for his leadership."

The continuing leaks from Mr. Snowden, the former intelligence analyst who remains in hiding here in Russia, have also roiled relations with allies in ways that could seed distrust of the Obama administration's broader goals.

The debate over Syria erupted at an unusually low point in relations with Brazil, where the disclosure that the National Security Agency focused particular attention on the nation -- and President Rousseff personally -- have soured the government's view of the Obama administration.

Brazil's foreign minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, publicly rebuked the American government this week, describing the spying as an unacceptable affront to Brazil's sovereignty and demanding a written explanation of the American intelligence activities in the country.

Mexico's foreign ministry addressed neither the debate over Syria nor the eavesdropping in a statement released as President Enrique Peña Nieto departed for St. Petersburg, but tensions in the relationship are palpable. Analysts in Mexico said the relationship was now spread across so many different issues -- trade, security, energy and migration, among others -- and handled by so many different overlapping agencies and institutions, that personal relations between presidents play far less of a role than it used to. That, in itself, suggested a recognition of Mr. Obama's diminished stature.

Mr. Obama visited Mexico City in May, where he was said to have found some chemistry with Mr. Peña Nieto, but they have both quickly been consumed by other issues. Indeed, a planned summit meeting between the United States, Mexico and Canada, which had been expected to take place this fall, has been pushed back to 2014.

"Everything was lined up during Obama's visit to have an extraordinary advancement, and now that has been put into question because of the intensity of Barack Obama's international and national problems, as well as Mexico's problems," said Rafael Fernández de Castro, an expert on United States-Mexico relations at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

Mr. Obama is not the first president to face such skepticism. President George W. Bush faced vehement opposition -- especially from France, Germany and Russia -- over the war in Iraq, though he also had the strong support of allies like Britain. That opposition only grew in Mr. Bush's second term, as it became clear that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and after the outbreak of sectarian killing that continues today.

Mr. Obama is now fighting that legacy as he makes the case for a more limited military response in Syria based on intelligence that he says is more concrete than that presented before the war in Iraq. Mr. Obama is also suffering from the heightened expectations that his presidency would bring a substantively new character to American leadership in the world.

Nina L. Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York, said that diplomacy under Mr. Obama, along with a general feeling of American overbearance, has left many more skeptical, and not just over crises like the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria.

Here in St. Petersburg, a planned meeting with representatives of civil society groups was rescheduled so many times that several invitees from Moscow said Wednesday that they simply would not attend. "Honestly speaking, these meetings are rituals," said Lev A. Ponomaryov, a veteran rights advocate here. "It's good we have them, but it is not the most serious issue during this trip."

Ms. Khrushcheva noted that many Chinese also felt slighted, for example, by the first lady's failure to accompany Mr. Obama to his meeting with China's leader, Xi Jinping, in California in June. "That 'moral obligation' in Syria, many feel is hard to argue with all the things the world has learned about the U.S. in the last 13 years," Ms. Khrushcheva said, "and sadly in Obama's own five years."

Reporting was contributed by Ellen Barry in New Delhi, Simon Romero in Rio de Janeiro, Jane Perlez in Beijing, Elisabeth Malkin and Karla Zabludovsky in Mexico City, and David M. Herszenhorn and Noah Sneider in Moscow.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here