Obama's Authority Undercut at UN, G-20

Lack of concrete action at home undercuts promises

By Josh Gerstein
|  Tuesday, Sep 22, 2009  |  Updated 4:36 AM EDT
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President Obama at the last meeting of the G20 in London.

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At this week’s international summit meetings in New York and Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama is set to offer heads of state and top diplomats his prescriptions for combating climate change and regulating financial markets.

But Obama’s inability to point to concrete action at home on both fronts -- issues where Obama’s proposals have bogged down in Congress – is likely to undercut his bargaining power, and his authority to press other nations to act.

“There’s a possibility of great disillusionment and a sense that Obama is overwhelmed,” said Jeffrey Garten, a professor and former dean at Yale Business School. “The politics of all of these issues is, from a global standpoint, regressive.”

Obama will address a U.N. session on climate change Tuesday morning – but some environmentalists say other nations will surely note the U.S. Senate’s failure to act on the “cap and trade” bill to reduce emissions, and the Obama administration’s reluctance to push the issue ahead of an international conference set for Copenhagen in December.

“What matters internationally is the actual number of emissions cuts. That’s what gives us credibility,” Kurt Davies of Greenpeace said. “I don’t know what they go with right now when it’s pretty clear the Senate will not pass a bill this year or maybe even this session.”

“On that issue, we’re arriving, I believe, with no credibility. Just one weak piece of legislation from the House,” Garten said. “Obama’s got a very weak hand.”

With the G-20 economic summit in Pittsburgh set to discuss international plans for regulatory reform to prevent a recurrence of the financial crisis that struck a year ago, the White House, Congress and other powerful institutions like the Federal Reserve seem to be at loggerheads over how to proceed.

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) is pushing legislation that would strip the Federal Reserve of its role in bank regulation, even as Obama has proposed plans to strengthen the Fed’s role.

“I think from the standpoint of our international credibility the administration has just lost its ability to say, ‘We’ve got a plan and it’s being seriously considered,’ because in fact the plan has been roundly dismissed by the [banking] committee,” said Garten, a Treasury official under President Bill Clinton.

Both issues, to some extent, are casualties of the administration’s decision to put most of its muscle with Congress and the public behind health care reform. Supporters of action on the climate and regulatory fronts fear that the sluggish U.S. response could be a recipe or excuse for inaction in other countries as well.

“A lot of countries that have not wanted to act have hidden behind the U.S.’s skirt,” said Annie Petsonk of the Environmental Defense Fund.

“Now the time for hiding is really over,” she said. “The international community feels like we’re out of time...There’s great concern in the international community about the lack of movement and the loss of momentum.”

Tuesday’s U.N. climate change session was officially convened by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. However, Obama considers climate change one of his four top priorities at the U.N., the U.S. Ambassador to the world body, Susan Rice, said last week.

In a withering public statement last week, the European Union’s ambassador to the U.S., John Bruton, expressed dismay about reports that the Senate might delay climate action until next year.
“If this were to happen, it would open the United States to the charge that it does not take its international commitments seriously, and that these commitments will always take second place to domestic politics,” Bruton wrote. “I submit that asking an international Conference to sit around looking out the window for months, while one chamber of the legislature of one country deals with its other business, is simply not a realistic political position.”

In a briefing for reporters Friday, U.S. climate change envoy Todd Stern took issue with Bruton’s statement.

“I think that the President… came into office aggressively on this issue and has never stopped,” Stern said. “The Senate is now doing what the Senate does on large, complex legislation. It has jurisdiction in a number of committees. It is a highly consequential bill that probably affects every corner of the economy. They are also wrestling with major healthcare legislation. That’s the way our process goes. It may be that some people on the other side of the pond don’t understand the system that well, but that is the way our system works, and we’re pushing ahead.”

However, Stern acknowledged that moving the legislation would help the U.S.’s standing on the issue. “Each step along the way…is very useful and helps the U.S. in terms of both leverage and credibility,” he said.

On the international economic agenda, the White House’s point person for the G-20 summit, Mike Froman, said Obama can point to plenty of action.

“Whether it was the stimulus or getting the approval of the IMF funding through Congress in really a relatively short period of time after the April summit, or on the regulatory reform agenda, putting forward a comprehensive plan including 600 pages of legislation--I think he goes to Pittsburgh being able to say, we’re serious about these issues, we're taking action, we're prepared to lead by example,” Froman told reporters last week.

On Thursday, Obama is set to host a historic meeting of U.N. Security Council heads of state to discuss his calls for global efforts on nonproliferation and nuclear security.

But even there, foreign leaders may be wary of the U.S. position. During the campaign, Obama publicly opposed designing new nuclear weapons for the United States. However, just last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover appointee from the Bush administration, reiterated his stance that new weapons designs are needed to keep the U.S. arsenal reliable and safe.

“It is clear, at least to me, that it is important for us to continue to make investments, and I think larger investments, in modernizing our nuclear infrastructure, the labs and so on, the expertise in those places, to have the resources for life-extension programs, and in one or two cases probably new designs that will be safer and more reliable,” Gates said last week at an Air Force Association conference.

Gates insisted that a drive for new designs would not mean the U.S. was seeking a nuclear advantage.

“That’s a red herring. This is about modernizing and keeping safe a capability that everyone acknowledges we will have to have for some considerable period into the future before achieving some of the objectives of significant arms reduction and eventually no nuclear weapons at all,” he said. “I also believe that these capabilities are enablers of arms control and our ability to reduce the size of our nuclear stockpile. When we have more confidence in the long-term viability of our weapons systems, then our ability to reduce the number of weapons we must keep in the stockpile is enhanced.”

Vice President Biden is reportedly opposing Gates’s push for new weapons, but talk of new weapons unnerves arms control advocates.

“It’s partly hypocrisy of, how can you tell Iran and North Korea they can’t develop new nuclear weapons when not only do we have thousands, we’re developing new nuclear weapons ourselves,” said John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World. “An endorsement of new nuclear weapons seems to undercut that.”

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