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Analysis: Obama refocuses his diplomacy

On the hard issues of nuclear arms, Kyrgyzstan and Iran, Obama has quietly shifted away from the applause of public diplomacy.

U.S. President Barack Obama laughs while French President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures during a joint news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, March 30, 2010. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

BOSTON — Real diplomacy doesn’t happen to the sound of applause.

It is a quiet, complex, back-channel enterprise and one that requires a personal relationship between individual heads of state.

In recent weeks, it seems President Barack Obama has come to understand this and has shown a change in the White House’s game plan when it comes to international affairs.

For the first 14 months of his presidency Obama focused on public diplomacy, on taking his message to the people of the world. The message was received with standing ovations from Cairo to Oslo.

But now there is a noticeable and profound shift in strategy in which Obama is getting down to the harder work of statecraft.

To put it in the language of the president’s favorite game, he’s gone from a zone defense to man-to-man.

And he’s going to need a game-changing strategy to succeed in at least one fateful diplomatic challenge that lies ahead, which is securing an international agreement for tougher sanctions against Iran.

The image of Obama in Prague sitting at a table signing a nuclear arms treaty with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, is an example of the kind of tangible success this more direct and conventional diplomatic approach can deliver.

The treaty commits both countries to reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,500 — one-third lower than the previous ceiling set out by the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start) of 1991.

Obama said the new Start treaty was a milestone, and “just one step on a longer journey” of nuclear disarmament. Medvedev said the new treaty would make the world a safer place.

Nice, predictable and even soothing words. The treaty will now need to be ratified by lawmakers in both countries and then would officially replace the previous treaty.

But before the ink was dry on the document, there were some signs of disagreement between Washington and Moscow on the still-unfolding situation in Kyrgyzstan and whether the leadership that has taken power there would permit the U.S. to continue to use Manas air base to support its mission in neighboring Afghanistan.

And beneath tensions on that issue were some still-outstanding disagreements on Iran pushing their way to the surface. Obama said he expected to secure “strong, tough sanctions” on Iran. But Medvedev was more cautious, saying they needed to be “smart” sanctions and that they could not cripple the Iranian people.

All of the diplomatic initiatives on issues such as arms treaties, Kyrgyzstan and Iran interlock — this is precisely the difficult equation that Obama has to solve in the weeks ahead as the issue of Iran and sanctions is expected to come to a head.

This kind of chess-game diplomacy is a far cry from Obama’s first year in office and the more theatrical oratory and great crowds that he appealed to with a new message of hope and change.