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On the hard issues of nuclear arms, Kyrgyzstan and Iran, Obama has quietly shifted away from the applause of public diplomacy.
Think back on the scenes of Obama’s public diplomacy in his first year in office:
From a packed Prague square in April 2009, Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons before thousands of cheering Czechs.
From the University of Cairo in June of 2009, Obama reached out to the Muslim world in a powerful and historic speech and made it clear that America has a common cause with Islam and that it will never be at war with the faith.
From Oslo where he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December, Obama trumpeted the highest ideals and heavy burdens of America and spelled out a very pragmatic vision of what is a “just war.”
The speeches were applauded near and far and came in stark contrast to the confrontational and unilateral style of former President George W. Bush, a posture that damaged America’s reputation in the world even among its closest allies, according to several significant polls in Europe and elsewhere.
But diplomacy with a backdrop of applause isn’t enough to accomplish the things that need to get done in the world to make it a better place from climate change to terrorism.
So now Obama is focusing on meeting more directly with world leaders behind closed doors.
In just the last month he has met with a host of leaders. He recently had a long phone conversation with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. And he recently hosted French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife for a private dinner. Those two meetings appear to have been designed in part to create a framework for bringing China and France to accept new sanctions on Iran, which they had previously been reluctant to do.
A possible glimpse that the table is being set came Thursday at the United Nations where the Chinese and five other major powers started talks on a U.N. resolution that would impose new sanctions on Iran.
But as the president is learning, this more challenging game of one-on-one diplomacy isn’t always easy.
He traveled to Afghanistan to meet with President Hamid Karzai on a surprise visit and expressed the need for a crackdown on corruption, among other concerns.
It didn’t go over well with the mercurial Karzai who, after Obama left, responded with uncharacteristically tough language. This response did not go unnoticed in the White House and relations between Washington and Kabul are as cool as they have been since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban.
Obama has sought to put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu only to find out that he, too, is recalcitrant in the face of a U.S. request to put an end to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Just yesterday, Netanyahu announced he would not attend a heads of state gathering in Washington to discuss nuclear security. The Israeli leader has proven more concerned about playing to his domestic political audience than catering to the special relationship with the U.S.
At the heads of state gathering next week, Obama will host more than 40 leaders to focus on securing nuclear materials. It will be the first time, White House officials told the Washington Post, that a U.S. president has held a single-issue summit with so many foreign leaders and his schedule of bilateral meetings with some of those leaders is being closely watched.
It is the diplomatic equivalent to a full-court press by Obama. And it is the clearest proof to date that Obama understands the clock is running out for imposing sanctions aimed at stopping Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon.
C.M. Sennot is the executive editor of GlobalPost.