As President Obama prepares to host the NATO and Group of Eight international summits this weekend, there are increasing signs that the world is brushing him aside.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is skipping the G-8 meeting that begins Friday at Camp David, a startling display of disrespect aimed at Mr. Obama, foreign policy analysts say.
French voters gave the bum’s rush this month to Mr. Obama’s ally, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in favor of socialist Francois Hollande, who campaigned on a pledge of withdrawing France’s 3,400 troops from Afghanistan sooner than Mr. Obama desires.
Then there’s the European debt crisis, which only has deepened since Mr. Obama urged eurozone leaders to solve their problems last November at a conference in France. At the Camp David summit, observers say, Mr. Obama will have little leverage over Europe’s fiscal emergency, which still could engulf the United States before the November elections.
“We’re not in this game,” said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We’re sitting on the bleachers a bit.”
Some observers even question the need for the G-8 anymore, given that the Group of 20 industrialized nations has taken a more prominent role in addressing global economic issues.
Bruce Jones, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noted that the G-8 doesn’t include “important voices” such as South Korea, Australia, Turkey, Brazil or India. He called it “a body that’s a little bit betwixt and between.”
But Michael Froman, a deputy national security adviser to Mr. Obama, said the group’s “intimacy” is useful for handling a broad range of economic and security concerns.
“Rumors of the G-8’s demise have been greatly exaggerated,” Mr. Froman said.
A focus of the G-8 and the NATO summit in Chicago, which begins Saturday, will be the timetable for turning over Afghanistan’s security to its own forces. In addition to grappling with allies who are eager to scramble for the exits of that military theater, Mr. Obama is facing international partners reluctant to contribute up to $1.3 billion of the estimated $4 billion annual cost of providing support to Afghan forces beyond 2014.
Another factor working against Mr. Obama at these meetings is his status as a potential lame duck, given his tight race against presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Ms. Conley said the pending election means the president’s “role is somewhat limited,” but he “can play a role of listening, helping leaders find common ground.”
Whatever the outcome of these summits, the bar isn’t set very high for Mr. Obama to do better than at his last two international conferences.
In April, his attendance at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, was completely overtaken by the news that some of his Secret Service agents and other security personnel hired prostitutes.
And in March, Mr. Obama stole his own thunder at a nuclear security summit in Seoul by engaging in an “hot mic” gaffe with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Mr. Obama was caught asking the Russian for more breathing room on missile-defense talks until after the November elections, when he would have more “flexibility.”
“Certainly the White House is trying to keep expectations low,” said Matthew Goodman, chair of the political economy program at CSIS. “There will not be any big, new initiatives.”
Mr. Medvedev will attend the G-8 meeting instead of Mr. Putin, who was inaugurated for a new six-year term as president of Russia last week. Mr. Putin, who has led Russia for a dozen years, told Mr. Obama that he needs more time to reorganize his government — an excuse that is the foreign-policy equivalent of claiming he has a headache. Without him, analysts say, there’s little chance of progress on the Syrian government’s bloody crackdown on protesters, or on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
A senior Russian lawmaker told Bloomberg that Mr. Putin is showing his displeasure with Mr. Obama over U.S. criticism of Russian elections and the lack of progress on a proposed missile shield. But Mr. Froman downplayed the suggestion that Mr. Putin is trying to send a message to the Obama administration.
“I wouldn’t overinterpret President Putin’s decision,” Mr. Froman said. “We are in very close touch.”
But Ms. Conley said the Russian leader’s message was unmistakable.
“It was an extraordinary event,” she said. “I don’t believe it bodes well in the near term for working constructively with Moscow on some of these more significant issues.”