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Big week for Obama on world stage. How did he do?

Obama can claim some advances, including a toughened international stance toward Iran. But the president also endured a setback on Middle East peace.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 26, 2009

United Nations, N.Y.

President Obama has wowed the world with his words and vision for addressing the major global challenges, from climate change and Middle East peace to the spread of nuclear weapons.

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But the biggest foreign-policy week of Mr. Obama's young presidency – stretching from the United Nations in New York to the just-ended Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh – demonstrates the difficulty of moving from appealing vision to leadership, especially in the 21st century of diffused global power.

The president will be able to claim some advances. These include a toughened international stance toward Iran in the run-up to talks that world powers will hold with Tehran next week. Also, any lingering doubts about Obama's stature and abilities have been erased, some foreign-policy analysts say, after he hosted a global economic summit and took the helm of the UN Security Council to win approval of new nuclear-nonproliferation measures. This was the first time an American president has chaired a Council session.

"It was perhaps Obama's best week in terms of foreign policy. I think he's proven to a range of leaders and the international public that at least in some cases, he's able to turn rhetoric into reality," says Charles Kupchan, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "He went into the week with many different balls in the air and came out with concrete advances on a number of important issues."

Among the accomplishments Mr. Kupchan lists: tightening international constraints on the proliferation of nuclear weapons, forging a more united front in confronting Iran, bringing some consensus on reducing risk in the financial sector, and reaching agreement that the G20 will permanently replace the "old boys club" that he says the G8 had become.

Still, Obama did not get everything he wanted. Most glaring was a failure, after weeks of intense effort by his top diplomats, to be able to announce a restart of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In the view of some international policy experts, what the president confronted this week is the 21st-century conundrum of a world that at once craves the leadership to address rising transnational threats, even as conflicting interests in an increasingly multipolar world feed resistance to American leadership.

"Obama hit what is perhaps the principal frustration of multilateralism in this era of rising middle economies and powers," says Steven Schrage, an international economics expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Much of the world chafes at seeing the US out front, but at the same time, no one else is able to fill that leadership role."