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Obama's Summits: Gradual Steps With Russia, Climate Change

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
Interviewee: Charles A. Kupchan, Senior Fellow for Europe Studies
July 10, 2009

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CFR European analyst Charles A. Kupchan says President Barack Obama made modest strides at both major summits he attended in Europe in the past week. Kupchan says the Moscow summit, involving visits with President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, was "on balance a success" because of agreements related to arms control and Afghanistan and steps Obama took to ease Russian suspicions. On the Italian G8 summit, Kupchan pointed to an emerging consensus of industrialized countries on climate change, led by Obama, and on new approaches to food aid for the developing world. But considerable challenges loom with Russia on possible NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia, Kupchan says. He also cited the inability of G8 countries to reach agreement with developing states over goals on controlling emissions. "We're moving toward a world in which the G20 is probably going to be a more effective gathering than the G8, but the downside is that once you have 20 countries around the table, it gets harder and harder to reach a consensus," he said.

President Barack Obama is winding up a week-long trip which started in Moscow, has gone on to L'Aquila, Italy for the G8 Summit, to Rome to meet with the Pope and then to Ghana for a visit to the African Continent. How has he done on this trip?

He has started off strongly in the sense that the visit to Moscow was on balance a success. His critics are right to say that there were no bombshells, no revolutionary breakthroughs but one has to put the Moscow summit within the context of the instances of rapprochement that under the best of circumstances take years to unfold. If anybody thought that Obama was going to go to Moscow and suddenly Russians and Americans would love each other and let bygones be bygones, then they're being naive. I'd say that if it takes ten steps for rivals to become lasting friends, that we just saw maybe step three or four.

I thought it was interesting that his big speech at the New Economic Institute in Moscow was not carried on Russian television.

The Obama administration had hoped for much broader coverage and that's part of the problem and part of the reason that the United States faces an uphill battle in that Russian elites and the Russian public more generally haven't paid that much attention to the Obama phenomenon. His election was not heavily covered in the Russian press; Obama is not a rock star in Russia, he is just another U.S. president and therefore likely to turn his back on Russia. Obama was trying to do two things: one was to get a concrete "deliverable," something that Russians and Americans alike could grab onto and say "look, we're making progress"-- and that was the arms control framework agreements and the agreement that Russia would allow overflight rights to American troops and material going to Afghanistan. And Obama is also trying to reach out to the Russian public, and to try to damp down the suspicion of American intentions that is the legacy of the last 50 years. He's taken a modest step in the right direction and the key question is, if this was step three or four, are there going to be steps five, six, and seven?

"I'd say that if it takes ten steps for rivals to become lasting friends, that we just saw maybe step three or four [with Russia]."

Once you set aside arms control, then the issues get tougher. For example, on the possibility of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO, on the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- the breakaway regions of Georgia [that were "liberated" by Russian troops last August], on the status of Kosovo [which Russia does not recognize as an independent country and the United States does] -- the United States and Russia are really quite far apart.

Let's move on to the G8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy, which I guess is a misnomer since I don't know how many countries all together are there. There are certainly more than 20, I would surmise.

The problems that we have in terminology stem from the reality that we are in a period of historical transition. We're still operating with structures that are left over from the 20th century, and we're trying to figure out who should be at the table in the 21st century. That's why you're getting all these hybrid gatherings; you have the G8 [the G8 countries include the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Japan, and Russia, plus the president of the European Commission] one day and then the next day it becomes the G14 [the G8 plus Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa and Egypt], and then later that afternoon you get more countries at the table. So it's physically an effort to figure out what countries need to be there to address the problems of the day. We're moving toward a world in which the G20 [the G14 plus Argentina, Australia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Turkey] is probably going to be a more effective gathering than the G8, but the downside is that once you have 20 countries around the table, it gets harder and harder to reach a consensus, and we saw that in Aquila over the last few days where the G8 members, the more industrialized countries, reached a consensus of sorts on climate change, but couldn't bring along rising developing countries.

On climate change -- this is an issue that's really arisen in recent years to the international level. It's a hard thing to negotiate, isn't it, when we're talking about the year 2050, which seems a bit far off.

The big news is that the Obama administration has taken a very different approach from the Bush administration. From the get go it has recognized the scientific basis of the need to fight emissions of greenhouse gases; and in Italy, it has agreed to specific numbers and target dates -- an 80 percent drop in emissions by the industrialized countries by 2050. The problem though is that there are three different layers of complexities and obstacles. One is that developed countries and developing countries aren't on the same page -- the developing countries say, "you were able to develop with no constraints on emissions, why should we pay the price as we develop? " and you get each government having to negotiate with its own domestic constituencies.

"Obama has to be very mindful of making deals abroad that he can sell at home, because if there's going to be a post-Kyoto agreement, it has to go before the Senate, and we already see that the legislation that's passing through Congress has been watered down."

So Obama has to be very mindful of making deals abroad that he can sell at home, because if there's going to be a post-Kyoto agreement, it has to go before the Senate, and we already see that the legislation that's passing through Congress has been watered down, and will not come up in the Senate before September. The legislation so far is not what the administration wanted but the administration got pushed back. And finally there's the problem of compliance. Even when you get agreements, and even when they are ratified, they often are not implemented. So if you look at Europe today where the Kyoto Protocol was passed and where you have a cap-and-trade system in effect, most countries are not meeting their commitments.

There was discussion on help to poor countries on developing their own agriculture more efficiently.

An important result from the meeting was the new emphasis on agricultural improvements in the developing world. Instead of a focus on providing food assistance, there will be a much greater focus on developing indigenous agriculture in emerging economies. And then on the global economic front, a consensus that the global trading system is still too fragile to return to normal. In other words, it's too soon to unwind stimulus packages. There was talk about trying to resume the Doha Round [on lowering world tariff barriers], although I have to say, I'm quite skeptical that that will happen. During this time of downturn in the global economy, it is very difficult for governments to push on the free trade door. I would say that they're having to work hard to fight against protectionism.

There also was discussion at the G8 Summit by some of the big developing countries like China, raising questions about whether the dollar should still be the central currency. Do you think there's a sort of rebellion in effect against the American dollar?

This is an issue that has come up repeatedly over the course of the past six months, most recently at the first ever meeting of the so-called BRICs [Britain, Russia, India and China], and I sense that there is a certain ambivalence about this issue. On the one hand there is a desire to move toward a world that's less reliant upon the dollar as a reserve currency, towards a more equitable world, a world in which power is shared across different actors. At the same time, a country like China which holds so much of its reserves in dollar assets and holds so much U.S. debt is quite reluctant to move down the road of potentially causing a devaluation of the dollar. Right now it's more talk than action, although I would say that over the course of the next decade, it's hard for me to imagine that the euro and perhaps also the yuan will not take their place alongside the U.S. dollar as a global reserve currencies.

There wasn't much talk in L'Aquila about some of the issues that really concern the United States, such as the continuing conflict in Afghanistan. The Iran nuclear issue came up but nothing was said to make much headlines. Does this indicate that the U.S. agenda is not always the world's agenda?

It's reflective of the fact that there are now more cooks in the kitchen than there used to be. And it's also in part a function of the forum, in that Afghanistan and Iran to some extent got more attention during Obama's April trip to Europe for the NATO Summit. There was a broader discussion about European contributions to Afghanistan then. The G8 historically has tended to focus on softer issues, on the environment, on economic assistance to the developing world, on global growth. I'm not surprised that a lot of attention wasn't put on issues of hard security.

It was announced that the Security Council's permanent five members, plus Germany, would meet at the United Nations in September to discuss where they stood with the offer to Iran to get into a new round of negotiations and to draw the consequences if there was no progress. What do you think actually will happen?

Obviously this issue has been forced by the troubled elections in Iran and there is ambiguity about whether the outreach to Tehran should continue, and if the outreach continues, is this a government that is ready to do business with the United States? If the answer to either of those questions is "no," that is to say "no, we shouldn't engage Iran" or, "no, if we do engage they won't reciprocate" then we will be in a difficult moment diplomatically because Obama will want to move expeditiously toward tighter sanctions and a more confrontational policy and garnering unanimity for that policy in the Security Council will be no easy task. In the backdrop to all of this will be this growing disquiet in Israel about Iran's nuclear program and concern about the possibility of military action.

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