This week's summit in Washington on nuclear terrorism saw the largest gathering of heads of state since the UN was founded more than 60 years ago. But then the summit of G20 countries on the financial crisis the US held in Washinton in November 2008 was the biggest gathering of its sort since Bretton Woods half a century before, while the Copenhagen Summit of 192 countries on the environment last December was the biggest gathering of its sort ever.
Not that the earlier meetings produced results commensurate with their billing. A new Bretton Woods reorganising international financial flows as well as regulating them is what we were promised at the G20. The reality has been an avalanche of individual, national initiatives, as governments have tried to respond to the anger of their electorates at the behaviour of the banks, but precious little international co-ordination – still less any agreement on currencies a la Bretton Woods. If anything the world is now further from a global agreement on finance than we were when the leaders of all those countries met in Washington and then again in London in April last year.
The results of the Copenhagen Summit were even more disappointing. It was billed as the last great chance for united action on climate warming, the moment when the world had to stand up and be counted. It didn't, of course, leaving the work of two years' preparation and the hopes of those seeking a great overarching agreement dashed. What replaced it, in the talks held by President Obama directly with China and a few major developing countries, is far from worthless, but it is also far more gradualist and less comprehensive.
The agreement announced in Washington on Tuesday, pledging countries to lock down vulnerable stockpiles of nuclear fuel within four years, was more triumphant. But it was also much easier. No country, after all, is going to stand up and say it is against stopping terrorists from getting hold of nuclear material for a dirty bomb. That is not to downplay the symbolic importance or political skill of President Obama in getting all these heads of state to attend the summit and stand four square behind him.
He didn't really need such a panoply of grandeur to achieve his results, however. Indeed, the communiqué that resulted could have easily been negotiated at a ministerial level. But the political purpose was the display of unity and the real aim was directed at showing a common front behind the President's campaign to isolate Iran and force it, and North Korea, to give up their nuclear ambitions.
Strictly speaking, it's a campaign that should have been pursued at the meeting of the signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty under the aegis of the UN in New York next month. But that one will be attended by Iran as an NPT signatory. By making this a personal invitation on the subject of non-state proliferation, the US President was able to exclude Iran and North Korea, but include Israel, India and Pakistan – all of whom have nuclear weapons but have refused to join the treaty.
That is the point about international summitry, however. A year ago, when President Obama came to power, there were hopes that, after Bush, the new American leader would return his country to a more internationalist approach. In one sense that is what he has done. Washington has become far more willing to work in co-operation with its allies and its rivals than it ever was under President Bush. But in the sense of working through international organisations, and in particular the UN, Barack Obama is in many ways even more America-first in his outlook than his predecessor.
Despite all the talk of multilateralism and reforming the UN, the IMF and the World Bank to be more inclusive, and less Western-dominated, there has been little momentum behind change. Indeed, the US has actively sidelined the UN on most big occasions from the economic crisis to climate change. The organisation has hardly helped itself by appointing quite such an ineffectual figure as Ban Ki-moon as its secretary- general, but then that is also an indication of how little its main sponsors, led by the US and including the UK, have cared to ensure a more powerful figure be chosen to head it.
Instead of working through institutions, Obama has chosen a multilateralist policy in foreign affairs, based on pursuing American ends through ad hoc alliances as its interests have dictated. If he has had any preference it is, ironically, for a Cold War concentration on bilateralism with China and Russia, as we have seen again in the Washington nuclear discussions. With Russia, Obama has been able to reach a deal on reducing warheads. With China he appears to have negotiated a tacit agreement on sanctions against Iran.
If you regard the greatest threat of nuclear proliferation to come not from terrorists, as Obama proclaimed, but from Iran, which his administration believes, then his policy is undoubtedly a persuasive one. Gradually he is building up the pressure on the country to the point when it will hurt the regime. It is, arguably, a better alternative than leaving Israel to act on its own.
If, however, you think the threat from Iran exaggerated and its interests directed more to an assertion of national interest than nuclear threats against its neighbours, then all this pressure may only produce the opposite result, by driving it into isolation and more covert development. Better to make use of its NPT signature in New York than to force the regime to renounce it by upping the ante in Washington.
That is the problem of Obama's reversion to an old-fashioned foreign policy based on power politics. If you look to the think tanks and the commentators of America, the world is defined as a zero-sum game in which new powers arise and displace old ones and America's interest is in treating with ascendant to remain at the top of the pack.
In terms of US domestic politics, and the attitudes in Congress, this goes down well. If you travel abroad, on the other hand, the picture becomes much more fluid and pluralistic. A different – a truly novel – foreign policy would seek to build up the international institutions capable of encompassing and working with that plurality. That is not the path Obama is set upon. Whether Britain and Europe should join him is rather more questionable.
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