Obama, never a schmoozer, seeks to boost his legacy at G7 summit

At the G7 summit in Germany starting Sunday, Obama will be looking to head off potential roadblocks to the conclusion of legacy achievements, including his work on the Iran nuclear deal.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Obama speaks during a news conference at the G7 summit in Brussels, Belgium, Thursday, June 5, 2014. Obama travels to Germany on Sunday for the summit.

President Obama travels to Germany Sunday for a summit of the Group of Seven industrialized countries, which is expected to take up issues ranging from Russian aggression in Ukraine and the campaign to defeat the Islamic State to how to improve the global response to health challenges like West Africa’s recent Ebola crisis.

But before the leaders of the United States, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, and Canada get down to the heavy stuff, German Chancellor Angela Merkel plans to escort Mr. Obama a few miles away from the summit to the Bavarian village of Krün – population 2,000.

There, the president and Ms. Merkel are expected to do a little shoulder rubbing with the locals. The White House says the visit to Krün will underscore “the deep ties between the American people and the German people,” while allowing the president to sample local food and local culture.

Does this mean that cool and cerebral Obama is going all touchy-feely and upping the personal dimension of his diplomacy? He is a president who has not forged warm and close personal ties with any of the world leaders he’s worked with – and who is known to disdain rote international gatherings that have no results on tap. But is he suddenly enthusiastic about one of his most exclusive clubs?

Not likely, say foreign policy analysts who have watched Obama since 2008, when the then-presidential candidate wowed 200,000 Germans with his intellect and vision for America in a speech in Berlin.

Instead, they say, a president who has shifted into legacy-building mode will be looking for a little help from his foreign friends. Obama will seek in Germany to cement the cooperation of America’s key partners on the issues that are most critical to securing his vision of America’s role in the world.

At the top of the list of legacy issues is conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal and approval of the vast Asian-Pacific trade accord called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. But it extends to reaching a global climate deal this year, and more broadly to implementing a system of shared global responsibilities in which America remains at the apex of a multipolar world.

Yet even more than enlisting foreign leaders’ help in securing his legacy, some say, Obama will be looking at the G7 summit, as well as other meetings with world leaders, as places to head off potential roadblocks to the conclusion of those legacy achievements.

“Europe is not where Obama looks as he builds his legacy, and the G7 hasn’t had much importance for him because it doesn’t get him to his grand strategy” focused on Iran and pivoting US interests to Asia, says John Hulsman, president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consulting firm based in Rothenburg, Germany. “But what he is interested in are people who can cause impediments and screw things up for him in achieving that grand strategy.”

Thus Obama will “work on the edges” of the G7 summit to press leaders on the issues that could get in the way of fulfilling his legacy, Dr. Hulsman says. (What had become the Group of Eight with the inclusion of Russia returned to the G7 after Russia annexed Crimea last year.)

Obama, he says, will underscore with Merkel the importance of working with Greece to head off a financial debacle that could drag down the global economy. He’ll also encourage Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make concessions on rice imports and other issues to ease TPP’s approval. And he’ll emphasize with French President François Hollande the importance of reaching a nuclear deal with Iran by the end of this month.

“The French are a perfect example of how the Europeans are not central to Obama’s vision except in how they could cause trouble for it,” says Hulsman, noting that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has been stinging in his public criticism of some aspects of the emerging deal with Iran. “If in the end the French say they won’t do it,” he says, “there goes a key piece of the legacy.”

Obama administration officials insist the president has close working relationships with a number of G7 leaders. In particular, with Merkel, Obama “has developed ... one of his closest partnerships in the world,” according to Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.

But in previewing the Germany trip with reporters Thursday, Mr. Rhodes also hinted that Obama sees the G7 meeting as an opportunity to address any glitches that might arise to threaten the issues mattering the most to him.

Noting that the summit will be “the last opportunity the president will have to be in the same venue with the leaders of several of our key partners in the [Iran] negotiations,” Rhodes said, “We will want to make sure that we are in lock step with our key allies at the negotiating table.”

The G7 meeting will be “an important opportunity at the leader level to ... ensure that we’re on the same page in terms of the type of deal that we’re pursuing,” he added.

What that means, some foreign policy experts say, is that Obama will very likely pull Mr. Hollande aside to make sure the French are with the program concerning the Iran deal.

“If I was back on the [National Security Council] staff and writing the talking points for the president, and you had an ally [like France] that you were going to have a few minutes with ... you would say, ‘Can we get you back on the bus?’ or ‘What is it going to take to get you back on the bus?’ ” says Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington and an NSC Middle East adviser under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Fontaine describes Obama as a leader “in legacy mode” who finds a pillar of his legacy taking public hits from a close ally. Obama, Fontaine says, should say to Hollande, “Let’s keep these disagreements behind closed doors, rather than doing this in the press which is harmful to our position.”

Of course, the other leaders of the G7 are not so much interested in boosting Obama’s legacy as they are in furthering their own national interests.

But for some foreign policy experts, it’s the G7’s evolution from a global-economy steering club when it was formed 40 years ago to a “values community” promoting Western principles that makes the group more relevant globally – and potentially more important to Obama’s efforts to further his global vision.

The more encompassing Group of 20 emerging and developed economies may have supplanted the G7 as the world’s economic steering club, says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. But in response to crises like those in Ukraine and with the Islamic State in the Middle East, countries turn to partners that share common values, she adds.

She senses that partly for that reason, Obama may have come to value the G7 gatherings and what they offer more than he once did. “Whether the president likes these types of shindigs or not, I will leave that up to the White House for comment,” Ms. Conley says. “But I think at this particular moment it’s really critical for the values community to speak very clearly ... on all of these geopolitical issues.”

Still, two days of conversations based on shared values won’t necessarily rule out actions that promote what Hulsman calls Obama’s “grand strategy.” And Fontaine of CNAS says that when it comes to the “legacy department,” the White House will be looking for strong language from the leaders on a climate change agreement this year and in support of TPP and trade liberalization more broadly.

Getting that from the G7 club, he says, “would be something that they [in the White House] would see as a success.”

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