While the media seems focused on such trivialities as whether Michelle Obama went too far in the manner in which she touched the queen, they have not given as much play to the historic agreements made at the G20 summit. Here was a meeting where the President of France was threatening to walk out, where China, Russia, Germany and the United States all were making competing and seemingly irreconcilable demands, ending in a far-reaching agreement that seemed to give all parties a substantial amount of what they were seeking. Yet the New York Times editorial page is complaining that the US did not get everything we wanted in terms of economic stimulus commitments by other countries. Such critics ignore the fact that countries like France and Germany were adamantly opposed to those kinds of stimulus measures, and were never going to agree to them no matter how strongly the US pushed. By sidestepping that issue, and making some compromises on our side, the US negotiators instead got these countries to commit over $1 trillion to the IMF, far more than anyone thought before the meeting was possible. Thus we achieved much of the stimulus result we were seeking, by pushing the discussion in a slightly different direction.
We are so used to the kind of diplomacy where the United States attempts to bully and threaten both its allies and adversaries into agreement with its demands, that we have yet to recognize the value of a new kind of diplomacy that seeks to achieve its ends through consensus and cooperation. It is important to remember that while making threats and refusing to compromise can make us feel righteous and powerful, that approach does not always achieve everything we want. Look, for example, at the difference between the strong coalition that George Bush I achieved in the first Gulf War through a diplomatic approach, compared to the weak coalition that George Bush II assembled through threats and bullying. Compare the agreement that President Obama achieved in London this week with what probably would have happened if the previous administration were still in power. The United States representatives would have been pounding their fists on the table demanding that others follow our approach, but everyone would probably have walked out of the meeting without much in the way of an agreement. President Obama is a master of the art of the possible. As such, he is always going to get criticized for being too accommodating, and for not fighting enough for a stronger approach. But he is going to accomplish more that way than by fighting losing battles.