Obama's foreign-policy credo: listen and lead

In this century, American presidents will have to listen more than they’re used to.

When President Obama left for his first major trip abroad, he arguably left behind the "American century" and flew into – what? The "give-and-take century"? The "sharing-power century"?

Whatever it's going to be called, it is an era that will require more listening and more compromise than US presidents are used to.

Mr. Obama seems to recognize this. "The president and America are going to listen in London as well as lead," said his press secretary, talking about this Thursday's G20 meeting on the global recession. It's a high-stakes gathering at which leaders of the world's major economies will have plenty to say.

Listening and leading should be Obama's foreign-policy watchwords not just for this summit, but for the rest of his presidency.

The US is still the world's biggest economy and still its mightiest military player. And it still represents the land of opportunity – as Obama himself testifies. But it lost some of its credibility as trustworthy world-cop in the Iraq war. And its economic role-model status has been tarnished by the global recession. Countries don't fall in line behind Washington as they did, say, during the cold war.

America can earn back this respect. But that will not change the rising influence of competing powers, such as China, or the globalization that's empowering up-and-comers, such as Brazil and India.

China's spending about $600 billion on economic stimulus – outpacing the US, if one accounts for China's smaller economy. Unlike Washington, Beijing has the money to spend, so imagine how much stronger China will emerge when the world economy recovers.

Obama was already in listening mode before he left on his diplomatic tour of Britain, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Turkey. What he heard was that he couldn't override political reality elsewhere – even on his top-rung issues.

Germany, France, and other countries, for instance, did not support the American proposal that nations spend 2 percent of the value of their economies on stimulus. Germans shudder at the memory of hyperinflation in the period between the wars. They and other Europeans argue they're already stimulating their economies through their generous social welfare systems.

And Obama won't even bother asking NATO allies to contribute more combat troops to Afghanistan when he meets with them at the alliance's 60th-anniversary summit on Saturday. Instead, he'll focus on other contributions the allies can make, such as more help in training Afghan security forces.

In his few months in office, listening has informed the president's leading, with his new Afghanistan policy a case in point. He's also heard Russia's ongoing growls over NATO enlargement and missile defense in Eastern Europe, and is seeking to cooperate on areas of common interest, such as arms control and Iran. His outreach video to Iran in March signals a new "my door is open" approach.

Looking ahead, the White House has announced a series of international meetings to try to resolve long-standing differences that have blocked a new climate change treaty (America is the world's largest per-capita carbon emitter). The administration would do well to do the same with long-stuck world trade talks, known as the Doha Round. These talks are opportunities for US leadership.

Listen-and-lead comes down to a more multilateral approach on the part of the US. If you ask the Europeans, that's what they want from American leadership. Apparently, so does Obama. It's a convenient convergence. Will it pass the test of this presidency? Of this century?

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