Over the next week, President Obama will be trying to put to bed the Cold War in Russia, rewrite the rules for international finance in Italy and reassure developing countries they retain his attention in Ghana.
Three countries, three very different audiences.
Mr. Obama will try to set a framework with Russia for nuclear arms reductions and seek Russian help in negotiating with Iran and North Korea, meet in Italy with leaders of about 40 countries to talk about finances, global warming and food security, and cap it off with a speech in Ghana delineating how developing countries fit into geopolitics.
Along the way, he will pack in meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and Chinese President Hu Jintao and deliver speeches in Moscow and Accra, Ghana - the final two addresses in a four-piece series that began with an April speech in Prague on nuclear disarmament and continued with the one to the Muslim world from Cairo last month, according to the White House.
These two new speeches will challenge Russia to change its view of the role of a great power on the world stage and will outline democracy and development goals for the developing world, the White House said.
The problem, however, is that he may return with little to show for the efforts.
“I think as long as we keep our expectations low about this summit meeting, then we’re less likely to be disappointed about what’s about to transpire,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in previewing the Moscow summit.
Since taking office, Mr. Obama has talked about resetting U.S.-Russian relations, and he will be under the gun from the moment he lands in Russia on Monday. His challenge was summed up by this week’s cover of the Economist magazine, which showed a smiling and waving Mr. Obama stepping into the jaws of a giant bear.
He faces a situation in which the man with whom he will do most of his negotiating, President Dmitry Medvedev, is not clearly the man in control. That man appears to be the former president, current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with whom Mr. Obama has just a short meeting.
Mr. Obama in a recent interview said Mr. Putin seemed to still have a Cold War mentality, and the White House says the goal is to break Russian leaders of the view that they have to compete with the United States on the international stage.
“If you look at Russian public opinion, what Russian elites say - and even some of their leaders - they think of the world in zero-sum terms. The United States is considered an adversary,” said Dennis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. “They think that our No. 1 objective in the world is to make Russia weaker.”
The centerpiece of official negotiations will be a nuclear arms reduction treaty, a follow-up to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) finalized in 1991. Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev are expected to agree to a framework that they hope will lead to a final agreement by the end of the year, when START expires.
The negotiations revolve around the number of nuclear warheads that should be allowed, the ways to verify compliance and the side concessions that will be required. For example, Russia is keen to see the United States forgo plans for a missile-defense site in Eastern Europe.
The Obama administration says it’s not interested in offering any reassurances or trades over the missile-defense system but instead is going to lay out U.S. interests and hope Russian leaders see places for cooperation.
“We’re going to talk about them very frankly, as we did in April, when we first met with President Medvedev,” said Michael McFaul, an adviser to Mr. Obama on Russian affairs. “And then we’re going to see if there are ways that we can have Russia cooperate on those things that we define as our national interests.”
Toss in issues of U.S. supply routes to Afghanistan, cooperation on curbing Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, continuing tensions over the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Russia’s desire to join the World Trade Organization, and the opportunities - and flash points - are numerous.
Mr. Obama will also visit two shadow summits going on in Moscow at the same time - one is a meeting of business leaders; the other a gathering of U.S. and Russian experts trying to promote civil society in Russia.
Mr. Kuchins at CSIS said Mr. Obama’s time would be better used face-to-face with the real power in Russia.
“Look, the most important part about his trip to Moscow is going to be his discussions with Vladimir Putin, in my view, for the simple reason that Mr. Putin is by far and away the most important and powerful figure in Russia,” Mr. Kuchins said. “In all honesty, I would blow off the meeting with Mr. Gorbachev - I don’t see if there’s a whole lot of value added there - and I would spend more time with Mr. Putin.”
If Mr. Obama’s goal in Russia is to move past the Cold War, his goal in Italy will be in part to figure out whether the Group of Eight major economies, or G-8, is still useful. The meeting, in L’Aquila, an area hard-hit by a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in April, comes at the midway point between meetings of the G-20, a broader international group that is in ascendance.
The focus will be the international financial breakdown and whether enough steps have been taken to address it.
“It’s a time when the leaders can get together and assess where they are in the economic-recovery effort, what further steps need to be taken to restore balanced economic growth, expand and restore exports, and create jobs,” said Michael B.G. Froman, deputy national security adviser for international economic affairs.
But the meeting is also being viewed as a testing ground before a major meeting on global warming, scheduled for December in Copenhagen. The G-8 leaders will likely praise Mr. Obama for pushing to combat greenhouse gases, but they are looking for much deeper cuts than those called for in the bill that barely passed the U.S. House two weeks ago.
European leaders seek 20 percent lower emissions than 1990 levels, while the House bill would amount to just 4 percent cuts below 1990 levels.
“European leaders see the G-8 summit as a huge marker,” said Heather Conley, CSIS’s Europe program director. “They’ve got to see some stronger commitments. They’re very fearful that they’re just going to run straight into December, and they’re not going to see some hard and fast targets.”
With his stop in Ghana, Mr. Obama hopes to make clear that while major issues demand his immediate attention, developing countries have a stake in those decisions and also have needs of their own, such as food security.
But he also means to highlight an African nation that is among the more politically stable.
“He’s stopping in an African example of extremely strong governance that deserves support and attention,” said Michelle Gavin, Mr. Obama’s senior director for African affairs.
Wrapping up his trip, Mr. Obama will visit the Cape Coast Castle, a trading center that became a departure point for slaves being shipped to the United States.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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