When President Barack Obama arrives in Italy for the Group of Eight (G8) Summit on July 8, he won't find the luxury accommodations that usually greet presidents. Instead, Obama will join other world leaders staying in a dreary block of police barracks in L'Aquila, a mountain town devastated by an April earthquake that killed some 200 people.
Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi moved the summit from an idyllic Sardinian island to L'Aquila to draw attention to the town's plight. The bleak setting may prove fitting as world leaders face a bleak agenda filled with thorny foreign policy issues and economic woes.
American attention to foreign policy has lately centered on Iran and Obama's evolving rhetoric over election-related violence there. But a larger question lurks: Beyond words, what will Obama do? That question will follow the president to Europe as world leaders discuss how to handle increasingly volatile nations that may not accept the open hand that the president has promised to extend.
Before traveling to Italy, Obama will stop in Moscow to huddle with Russian leaders. Topping his agenda: Convince Russian leadership to back U.S. efforts to convince Iran to halt its development of nuclear weapons. U.S. leaders plan to ask Russians to curb their nuclear weapons too, as part of a new arms control deal to replace a 1991 agreement expiring this year.
For all this, Russia may want something in return: a backtracking by the United States on plans to build a missile defense system based in Europe. Former President George W. Bush long backed the system, saying it was crucial to defend against attacks from Iran or North Korea. Iran continues to develop nuclear capabilities and North Korea has tested several missiles since April, but Obama's proposed 2010 defense budget contained no funding for the defense system.
And though several European leaders have been outspoken in their criticism of Iran's election violence, convincing those nations to take concrete steps against the regime may prove difficult: Iran represents an important trading partner for some European nations. And Italy is Iran's No. 1 European trading partner. (Since 1979, the United States has imposed sanctions against Iran, except for humanitarian goods and food.) Still, Berlusconi said the G8 leaders might discuss sanctions against Iran, though he said the worldwide economy would be the primary focus of the meetings.
Even if Obama persuades Russian and other leaders to back him at the negotiating table with Iran, former U.S. Ambassador John Bolton says it won't matter much. Bolton sums up his view of the prospects of convincing Iran to curb its quest for nuclear weapons: "I think it's a fantasy."
Bolton notes that since Obama's inauguration speech offering to extend a hand to nations that "unclench your fist," Iran and North Korea have clenched their fists tighter. As the Iranian regime unleashed violence and threats against those protesting suspicious election results, Ahmadinejad threatened a "crushing" response to U.S. criticism. Meanwhile, North Korea refused to return to international negotiations, sentenced two U.S. journalists to 12 years of hard labor for allegedly crossing the China/North Korea border, and continued with UN-forbidden missile launches.
As attempts at negotiation prove fruitless, says Bolton, Obama must formulate an alternative policy: "I think he's still approaching international problems in a very naïve and inexperienced way, and that should be very worrying about the impact that kind of behavior could have on our overall security."
Even Obama-whose administration has offered Iran a formal invitation to negotiations without preconditions-acknowledged that prospects for talks with Iran might be dampened by its recent actions. But the president didn't speculate on how those talks might be affected, and he didn't rule them out. Instead, Obama pointed to one thing that political observers on both sides seem to agree on about Iran and its nuclear program: "The clock is ticking at a fairly rapid clip."