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David Rothkopf

Otter, Flounder, and the boys hit India and the G20 meetings

What would you do after a rough few months on campus? Roadtrip! It works the same way for presidents. Though, instead of making the journey in Flounder’s brother’s Lincoln this one involves — according to the same people who estimated 11 million people attended the Glenn Beck rally — 3,000 people, 34 warships, Air Force ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

What would you do after a rough few months on campus? Roadtrip!

It works the same way for presidents. Though, instead of making the journey in Flounder’s brother’s Lincoln this one involves — according to the same people who estimated 11 million people attended the Glenn Beck rally — 3,000 people, 34 warships, Air Force One, 13 cargo aircraft, three helicopters, and the private aircraft of a coterie of fat cat hangers-on. And instead of heading to Emily Dickinson College to comfort the grieving roommate of Fawn Liebowitz (by treating her to an evening at a local roadhouse to listen to Otis Day and theKnights) this one includes stops in India, Seoul,Korea for a G20 meeting that will involve more slippery smooth talking than"Otter" Stratton could ever muster, Japan, and Indonesia.The rumor that Obama is visiting Indonesia to consider locating his presidential library there is untrue and was denied by the White House moments after Mitch McConnell started to spread it, thus ending the three hours and twenty-two minutes of civility following Tuesday’s elections.

For Obama, the trip is bound to be a relief. In fact, a variety of pundits are peddling the idea that given likely gridlock, congressional investigations, and general acrimony at home, that this trip will mark the beginning of a period during which the president will focus on international issues. As the theory goes, presidents can elevate themselves on the international stage without being dragged down by the Congress. Like many such theories, of course, this is nonsense. Nothing would seal Obama’s fate as a one-term president quite as fast as a refocusing away from the domestic economic issues that torment his employers, the U.S. electorate.

Furthermore, given those domestic economic problems and the problems associated with our recent overseas misadventures, the United States is going to be both considerably less forward-leaning overseas, considerably more inward-looking generally and, in all likelihood, despite the "trade" sub-theme of the upcoming trip — which is really a form of mercantilist chest-thumping — more protectionist going forward.

In fact, this trip will mark as big a change overseas forthe president as the past week has at home. And in all likelihood, the meetings with world leaders in which he engages are not going to feel very much like the non-stop welcoming parties he enjoyed during his first couple years in office. The bloom is now well off the rose.

Not only is he no longer seen primarily as a welcome alternative to George W. Bush by many, he is now actually starting to be seen as something of a disappointment in comparison to Bush by some (in LatinAmerica, for example, in India, in Israel and among a host of leaders with whomhe has only a cool, business-like personal relationship). Furthermore, early promises have not been kept (the new relationship with the Muslim world, a new era of U.S. leadership on climate, etc.). And now everyone has seen how the American people have cooled on their leader and his party and they are beginningto wonder whether he is a flash in the pan.

This tempering of the early enthusiasm is compounded by the fact that during the first two years of the Obama administration, the United States’ relative standing in the world — while having bounced back dramatically from the nadir of the Bush catastrophe in Iraq (yes, that’s right, there are still plenty of people particularly in that neck of the woods who don’t miss Bush and never will) — has suffered due to the economic blows of the crisis, the burdens of many years of reckless U.S. fiscal policies, the sense that the problems with the U.S. economy might be long-term and structural, and the fact that a number of emerging economies have been growing much more rapidly economically and in terms of relative influence.

The G20 meeting will provide a read on this new normal of a slightly battered president, compromised U.S. influence and constrained U.S. resources. On the one hand, Obama will be accorded the deference due the leader of the world’s richest and most powerful nation. He will be seen not so much as Barack Obama, political phenomenon, but instead will be simply president of the United States of America, a man whose stature is due almost entirely to his office and the state of the country he represents and is little colored by his back-story or personal dynamism. That’s not exactly chopped liver to be sure. But even that won’t mean what it used to at such meetings. Significant leverage on currency issues, on trade issues, on virtually everything has shifted to emerging powers and the need for deft coalition management on the United States’ part has never been higher. In this respect, perhaps Obama the former senator will have some real advantages, but expectations are low that he will be able to achieve anything meaningful at the meeting.

The high point of the journey and its most important insight, however, may well be its start in India. One implication of being the first president of the new multipolar era is the necessity of forging new alliances and managing balance of power geopolitics with renewed vigor. Forging a truly special relationship with India — in economic, political and defense terms — is as important a component of what must be the United States’ new foreign policy as there is. Amidst the high-level talks and the deal-signings therefore, a somewhat chastened president of a somewhat chastened country may actually have an opportunity to begin the path back to being something exceptional. He can turn recent personal, political and national experiences into a wiser worldview and let them drive us to a period of stronger, more diverse partnerships that make the United States and the planet safer and more prosperous. And if he does, when we look back at this trip, we will see the recent election and the United States’ stumbles of the past few years, not as so much as setbacks but as important parts of the evolution of both United States’ first truly 21st centurypresident and our new 21st century foreign policy.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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