President Barack Obama returned early Sunday morning from a near week-long international tour that took him to a key summit in Moscow, a G-8 summit, and his first appearance in Africa as president. But some suggested, with his poll numbers down a bit and media attention mostly elsewhere, that his summiteering is having diminishing returns.
Perhaps. But I think it has at least as much to do with the media culture.
American media, especially cable TV news, is moving more into infotainment mode, stuck on a few areas. Geopolitics has never been its strong suit, and political coverage is mostly focused on food fights. Which was unfortunate, as following on to his addresses in Prague and Cairo, Obama gave the final two of his advertised four major speeches on his new geopolitics last week, in Moscow and in Accra, Ghana.
While Obama was in Moscow for a fairly momentous summit with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, American media was mostly transfixed by some very shiny pieces of tinsel named Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin.Obama's meeting with the pope is the sort of standard event that the conventional media knows how to cover.
Now, admittedly, neither Jackson nor Palin holds much interest for me. They're non-serious celebrities. I have a high tolerance for eccentricity, which can be a creative thing, but Michael Jackson was just plain weird, and I hadn't listened to his music in decades. As for Sarah Palin, I pegged her as a lightweight in a piece here on the Huffington Post just a few hours after she was announced as John McCain's running mate and maintained that she was a serious hindrance for McCain right after her career highlight speech at the Republican national convention. She's a political sideshow. Put another way, she'll be president some time after Han Solo.Here's the 911 call for the late Michael Jackson.
But between the now ingrained back-and-forth fights over Palin and the Jackson circus, the dominant programming was set, taking over the most interesting part of Obama's week, the Russian part.
Admittedly, geopolitics isn't easy to talk about. It's not simply a matter of opinion. The media is quickly at sea when foreign policy goes beyond Western Europe and the Middle East. And even CNN has cut back on its geopolitical coverage. Fox News and MSNBC are barely in the game.
That was especially clear on Saturday, when the Obamas toured a former center of the African slave trade on the coast of Ghana.
Fox News had no set-up for this obviously dramatic moment in the history of America's first black president, cutting away from its usual conservative chatter only as Obama was wrapping up his remarks after he and his family toured the former dungeons and slave pens, cutting away not long after. As for MSNBC, it had no coverage at all, stuck as it was on whatever infotainment sludge it is that the channel telecasts on weekends. Only CNN had anything approaching full coverage.
The media culture and its obsessions aside, Obama had a very interesting week.Russia and America are now allied on Afghanistan.
The Moscow Summit from Monday to Wednesday was the so-called "Reset Summit" to bring American/Russian relations out of the neo-Cold War depths they'd sunk to last year. It certainly succeeded at that, and at some other things as well, especially with regard to sharp reductions in nuclear weapons, aid for the US effort in Afghanistan, and a pullback on NATO expansion, a longtime thorn in the side of Russia. But other sticking points remained, on a US anti-missile shield and on Iran.
And while Obama has good rapport with Medvedev, the reaction of Putin, which is not yet clear, may be the most telling. Here's one early indication of what Putin's reaction might be. Obama's buddy, Medvedev (Putin's former chief of staff), announced as the G-8 summit ended that if the proposed US anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe isn't resolved to Moscow's satisfaction by September, he will move offensive missiles into Kaliningrad, formerly the Prussian/German city of Konigsberg, a Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania on the Baltic.
After Moscow, which coincided with the height of the Jackson circus and the Palin psychodrama, things went predictably downhill at the G-8, the group of eight advanced industrial nations which has been largely overtaken by the G-20.
With Obama's encouragement, the G-8 leaders agreed to provide $20 billion in food aid to Africa, mainly in development programs rather than cash which would otherwise likely end up in the pockets of corrupt regimes.
That aside, the G-8 summit looks like a disappointment. While leaders agreed to continue economic stimulus efforts, with the International Monetary Fund projecting a 1.4% contraction in the global economy this year (down slightly from the previous forecast), there's still concern about continuing unemployment. Which is usually a lagging indicator of any recovery.
The more established industrial countries are at loggerheads with more recently industrializing countries on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. China and India are not on board. As a result, the more established powers agreed to a goal of cutting temperature rises but not specific targets in greenhouse gas reductions This means there is a great deal to be done prior to the UN's big Copenhagen conference late this year on climate change.Obama delivered a major address on America, Africa, and the new world framework on Saturday to the Ghanaian Parliament in Accra.
Obama's first visit to Africa as president, obviously fairly momentous, received relatively short shrift. That's probably a function of timing, (coming on the weekend in the US), ignorance (like most white Americans, I know relatively about Africa), and overload (coming at the tail end of a big week), as well as a failing media culture.
It's unfortunate, as Obama's speech to the Ghanaian Parliament in Accra, with more than a bit of tough love that certainly no other president could utter, was quite interesting. And deserves much more attention than I can give it now. (For one thing, I would actually have to know about Africa, which I do not.)Sarah Palin, chatting flirtatiously here with a Canadian comedian she strangely believed to be French President Nicolas Sarkozy, will, odd as it may seem, never be president.
Contrary to conventional media expectation, Obama has not been hunkered down in the White House, dispatching Hillary Clinton to fly the flag around the world. (Indeed, Clinton will give her first major speech as secretary of state only this week.) Instead, Obama is pursuing a very expansive recasting of America's role in the world, with a fascinating blend of high-flown rhetoric and realpolitik.
It has nothing to do with the controversial fluff that is Sarah Palin, the infotainment appeal of Michael Jackson, the usual partisan ping-pong, or even the celebrity-oriented media obsessions with the Obamas themselves. But it does have a lot to do with America's future.