Barack Obama as Quiet International Reformer

For four days this week, President Obama will place himself squarely at the center of multilateral diplomacy. From Tuesday to Thursday he is in New York, where he will address the UN General Assembly and will chair a Security Council summit on nuclear proliferation — the first U.S. president to do so. Then it’s on to Pittsburgh for G20 talks on the economy.

These meetings reflect the President’s wider commitment to global cooperation. Unlike George Bush — who grudgingly accepted the need to work through international institutions in his second term — Obama has emphasized his personal investment in multilateralism.

“Given our interdependence,” he argued in his landmark Cairo speech in June, “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”

The administration has acted as midwife to fundamental — if poorly understood — changes in the international system. Its decision to prioritize economic crisis management through the G20, including China and India as equals, has validated the emerging economies’ inclusion in the top level of economic governance. This has strengthened America’s position: all G20 members accept that only Washington has the clout to guide the forum’s deliberations.

What’s remarkable is less that the U.S. crafted these changes than the quiet, un-showy way in which it has done so. This has ensured that European governments — which inevitably see their influence diminish as Asia’s rises — have accepted the new balance of power gracefully.

It helps that some European leaders, notably Britain’s Gordon Brown and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, see the case for recalibrating international institutions for the new century. But no European leader — or the entire EU combined — could rewrite the rules as the U.S. has done.

The administration’s investment in multilateralism doesn’t always pay off so easily. Efforts to work through NATO on Afghanistan have been met with only token offers of extra troops from Europe. Invited to the G8 in Italy in July, China and India voiced doubts about the U.S. position on climate change. Russia vetoed the presence of UN peacekeepers in Georgia and has not fundamentally altered its approach in talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But the President and his team never expected multilateralism to be easy. In a speech this August, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice argued that “real change can only come from painstaking, principled diplomacy.” That’s especially true at the United Nations, where Russia and China are more confrontational on security issues than they are over economics in the G20.

In the last years of the Bush administration, Moscow and Beijing vetoed U.S. efforts to put pressure on Burma and Zimbabwe through the Security Council. This year, they undermined Western efforts to restraint Sri Lanka in its bloody war against Tamil rebels.

President Obama has said he wants the international system to be based on “clear rights and responsibilities for all”. If the United Nations consistently fails to act in humanitarian crises, his administration’s patience won’t last forever. For now, Ambassador Rice and her team are trying to pre-empt further crises by engaging their counterparts in human rights talks and launching an initiative in support of UN peacekeeping. These are signals that, unlike the Bush-era unilateralists, the U.S. is prepared to work with others on crisis management.

So Obama will use his round of multilateral engagements to set out his vision of the U.S. as an integral member of the international community – an international community in which all countries take their responsibilities seriously. For now, he and his team can be satisfied that in just eight months, they have restored America as a leader in multilateral diplomacy.