President Barack Obama traveled to Europe with his expectations set low. He met them.
Obama and other western leaders were unable to move Russian President Vladimir Putin to take a stronger stand on Syria, and Russian officials scoffed at the U.S. president’s aspirational call to cut nuclear weapons arsenals.
At the Group of Eight industrial nations summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, and then in Berlin, Obama also faced questions from U.S. allies about National Security Agency surveillance of international Internet data.
Those conflicts obscured some of the progress the U.S. was able to make on economic issues over the last three days, including moving forward on a free-trade agreement with the European Union and commitments to stamp out bank secrecy and deter tax avoidance.
“His objectives and deliverables were appropriately modest,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “This is not a moment when Obama has an opportunity to hit a home run, and I think his trip was modulated accordingly.”
The centerpiece of Obama’s three-day trip was his address yesterday at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The setting, where the Berlin Wall once stood, evoked high moments in the trans-Atlantic alliance and historic presidential declarations of U.S. moral purpose in global affairs.
“So long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” he told a crowd, as he squinted in the sunshine to read his speech on paper after the teleprompter failed. “Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons -- no matter how distant that dream may be.”
Under the terms of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty known as New START, the U.S. and Russia are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each by 2018. Obama is proposing that those numbers be cut by a third.
His plea was rejected by the Russians within hours, and then questioned later in the day by Republicans in the U.S. Congress.
Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said that Russia can’t reduce its strategic arms while the U.S. builds missile-defense systems, which long have been a point of friction between the two nations.
“Development of the shield and the sword are mutually interconnected,” Rogozin told reporters in St. Petersburg. “Not to understand this is either lie, bluff or demonstration of deep unprofessionalism.”
Any new treaty would be subject to ratification by the U.S. Senate, and the reaction from Republicans in Congress was equally negative.
“The president’s announcement without first fulfilling commitments on modernization could amount to unilateral disarmament,” Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee said in a statement.
A Pentagon report released yesterday said the U.S. will maintain its “nuclear triad” of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable bombers.
While Obama and Putin discussed nuclear non-proliferation when they held a face-to-face meeting June 17 at the G-8, their differences over Syria spilled out into the open as they faced television cameras side-by-side in Northern Ireland.
Obama called them “different perspectives.” Putin said that “our opinions do not coincide” and warned against sending military equipment to the Syrian opposition, a step that the U.S. has announced it will take.
“There’s a total lack of understanding of what America wants to achieve in Syria.” said Fedor Lukyanov, the editor of the Moscow-based publication Russia in Global Affairs. “Russia is still very firm in its position that any change of status quo in Syria would be worse.”
Putin’s position “didn’t change it at all,” he said.
The G-8 leaders eventually agreed to a statement calling for a transitional government in Syria that went no further than one issued in Geneva in June 2012 by the United Nations-sponsored Syria Action Group. While the U.S., U.K. and France have declared there is solid evidence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical arms against the rebels, the G-8 statement called for an investigation.
Obama also had to address the U.S. National Security Agency programs that sweep telephone numbers and Internet data.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought up one of the programs, called Prism, during a news conference with Obama in Berlin yesterday.
“There are people who have concerns about this, particularly about the possibility of data collection on a vast scale,” Merkel said. “The questions that aren’t clarified we will continue to discuss.”
Prism monitors the Internet activity of foreigners believed to be located outside the U.S. and plotting terrorist attacks, and Obama defended it by saying the surveillance has saved lives without impinging on personal privacy.
“This is not a situation in which we are rifling through the ordinary e-mails of German citizens or American citizens or French citizens or anybody else,” Obama said.
Obama’s approval ratings held steady after the surveillance revelations, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted June 12-16 that found 49 percent approving of how he’s handling his job as president and 43 percent disapproving. That compares with 51 percent approving and 43 percent disapproving in a Pew poll last month before the NSA programs were exposed. The latest survey of 1,512 adults in the U.S. had an error margin of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.
The main achievement of the Europe trip was progress on trade. Obama announced that the U.S. would be the host for the first round of negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a free trade deal with the European Union that Obama has been pursuing to complement a similar pact with Pacific nations.
The U.S. and the EU represent almost half of the global economy. The European Commission estimates an agreement, which might take two years to close, would generate annual economic benefits of 119 billion euros ($158 billion) for Europe and $126 billion (95 billion euros) to the U.S.
“That, in a sense, beat expectations because most people thought that the French objections over the cultural sensitivities was going to scupper the deal,” said Matthew P. Goodman, a former Obama administration official who holds the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “But it got off the ground, and I think that is an important development.”
European nations also are moving toward a common standard on tax-data reporting in response to new requirements for doing business with the U.S.
“The goal of cracking down on tax avoidance, bringing greater transparency to it, is something that we have pursued in the United States,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters.
G-8 nations adopted a common approach to standards for cross-border disclosure and tax-data sharing, saying they will publish “national action plans to make information on who really owns and profits from companies and trusts available to tax collection and law enforcement agencies.”
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