President Barack Obama faces the sternest test of his international leadership this week when he attends the United Nations and chairs a G20 summit, amid growing doubts about his grandiose vision for US foreign policy.
When he addresses the 64th UN General Assembly, which opens tomorrow, Mr Obama will tell his global audience that “everybody has a responsibility, the US is leading anew and we are looking to others to join,” according to Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the world body.
After the unilateralism of the Bush era, there will be immense relief among the UN’s 192 members that America has a president ready to co-operate with the rest of the world.
But after eight months in office, Mr Obama is facing frustration on several policy fronts. Chief among the president’s disappointments has been the Middle East.
The administration set a goal of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in two years and Mr Obama “reached out” to Muslims in two major speeches in Turkey and Egypt.
His allies raised expectations that Mr Obama would appear at the UN with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, to announce a full resumption of peace negotiations.
Instead, the meeting that will take place tomorrow will be little more than a photo-opportunity where nothing substantive will be discussed. The White House admitted the encounter between Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu would only “lay the groundwork for the relaunch of negotiations”.
A senior Palestinian official said that Mr Abbas was only attending because “we don’t want to disappoint the American administration.”
Mr Abbas’s attendance, the official added, “does not mean a resumption of peace talks, because these depend on a halt to the building of settlements” by Israel in the occupied West Bank.
Though Mr Obama’s commitment to Middle East peace has not been doubt, the tactics deployed by George Mitchell, his special envoy, have been called into questioned. By setting the improbable condition that the Israelis freeze all settlement building, the administration set an impossible goal, according to observers. “They have squandered goodwill in the Middle East since the Cairo speech largely by making such an issue of settlements and not being able to deliver,” said an American expert on the region who asked to remain nameless because the White House was “very thin-skinned”.
“They are not thrilled about where they find themselves and different options are being considered. There is a sense of ‘what is going on’ and ‘why don’t we look so good?’ It was a colossal misjudgement.”
Mr Obama has also sought to achieve a new global pact on climate change, but he has yet to prove that Congress will support his proposals to limit carbon emissions. He will soon have to decide whether to send more US troops to Afghanistan, although he said publicly yesterday that he was “sceptical” of the case for reinforcements on top of the 21,000 additional soldiers he has already dispatched.
This week, Mr Obama will also need to rally allies against the nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea. At the G20 in Pittsburgh, he will face European leaders who want him to impose more regulations on America’s financial sector.
Heather Conley, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, believes the president has bitten off more than he can chew. “He sees a transformative role for himself. But we are getting into a simple question of bandwidth. When you overload the circuit that means not everything gets sufficient attention.”
Others are less charitable. One official from the Bush era said: “After his campaign, they believed everything he touched turned to gold. They really seem surprised that in foreign affairs, things just don’t happen so easily.”