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Gary Younge
Obama doesn't need more friends

There is limited truth to the notion that the American political agenda is so overwhelmed with healthcare reform that nothing of consequence will happen at the major international gatherings that Barack Obama will attend this week.

It is certainly true that Congress has to give a clear green light for all international agreements before Obama can honour them and Congress is right now busy doing something else. So anything that he says about climate change or economic stimulation will be highly contingent on a political class that is both highly distracted and, in this moment, highly volatile.

This is certainly frustrating European diplomats desperately trying to quicken the pace on climate change. "There is a global timetable and the US Senate is fully aware of it," says EU ambassador to the US, John Bruton. "The world cannot wait on the Senate's timetable."

Sadly, for any conclusive decision it may have to. But that is not the same thing as claiming that what is going on in the foreign and domestic arenas are taking place in parallel universes. Neither the public nor politicians are truly able to separate the global from the local so completely, and to try rarely makes sense.

"The diplomatic historian traces foreign affairs as if domestic affairs were offstage disturbances," writes Walter Karp in The Politics of War"

The historian of domestic politics treats the explosions of war as if they were offstage disturbances. Were that true we would have to believe that presidents who faced a mounting sea of troubles at home have nonetheless conducted their foreign policy without the slightest regard for those troubles … that individual presidents were divided into watertight compartments, one labelled 'domestic' and the other 'foreign'.

Where Obama is concerned this week is important because he is in the crux of framing how his presidency will be understood. At the moment he risks becoming the well-meaning and likeable president with grand plans that produce little in the way of results. Despite his stimulus bill, unemployment is still rising; the troops are still in Iraq; Afghanistan is getting worse. His healthcare reform risks following a similar pattern – an improvement on the status quo that too many people believe is also inadequate. One can argue about how fair these perceptions are and whether they will change in time (he's only been in office for eight months). But once they are set they can be difficult to shift and politics isn't about what's fair.

So when he strides the world stage this week he will be keen to strike a decisive tone, regardless of how many decisions he is actually able to make. The world loves him but as a recent article in the New York Times pointed out he has had trouble leveraging that into any concrete gains. This may primarily be because even though he is more congenial than Bush his shift in style has yet to be matched by a sufficiently significant shift in substance.

That would explain the somewhat hectoring tone that he plans to adopt today at the UN.

He doesn't need more friends he needs meaningful results. And in the absence of results he needs at least to appear as though he is more interested in getting results than he is in keeping friends. That is as true for healthcare as it is for international relations. And the factors that shape his framing know no borders.

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