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Syria Puts Obama's Multilateralist Philosophy To The Test

President Obama holds a press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday on the sideline of the G-20 summit.
Jewel Samad
AFP/Getty Images
President Obama holds a press conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Friday on the sideline of the G-20 summit.

President Obama has come home from the Group of 20 summit with essentially no more international support for a strike on Syria than when he left the U.S.

He spent the last three days in Sweden and Russia, lobbying U.S. allies on the sidelines and on the public stage, with little movement.

The conflict has presented perhaps the biggest challenge yet to Obama's multilateralist inclinations.

'A Hard Sell'

At a press conference Wednesday in Stockholm, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt showed why president Obama's coalition-building effort is an uphill climb. Reinfeldt stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the American president and said, essentially, they won't be shoulder-to-shoulder on Syria.

"Just to remind you, you're now in Sweden, a small country with a deep belief in the United Nations," he said.

But Russia and China are making sure the United Nations Security Council stays gridlocked. On Friday in St. Petersburg, Russia, Obama said fine.

"If we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use, then an international response is required, and that will not come through Security Council action," he said.

But wait, there's more: Everyone assumed that Britain was on board, until Parliament pulled the rug out from under British Prime Minster David Cameron.

Then on Friday afternoon, the White House released a joint statement from about a dozen countries that called for a "strong international response" to Syria's use of chemical weapons, but the statement did not endorse a military strike.

In St. Petersburg, Obama said he would keep pushing. "It's a hard sell, but it's something I believe in."

Multilateral Tendencies

This effort is personal for Obama. It means giving life to words he's been saying from the start of his political career.

"The words of the international community must mean something. Those regimes that break the rules must be held accountable," he said in 2009, while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.

Protesters march from New York's Times Square on Saturday voicing opposition to military intervention in Syria.
Jason DeCrow / AP
Protesters march from New York's Times Square on Saturday voicing opposition to military intervention in Syria.

Four years later, he said almost the exact same thing during this trip: "And so the question is: How credible is the international community when it says this is an international norm that has to be observed?"

Multilateralism has been the foundation of Obama's foreign policy, and not just on issues of war and peace.

As soon as he took office, Obama emphasized the larger Group of 20 major economies over the smaller G-8 forum. He has also tried to balance China's rise by bringing Asia and Latin America into one great big trans-Pacific partnership.

Barry Blechman of the nonpartisan Stimson Center says there are philosophical and economic reasons for this. The U.S. is coming out of a decade of war and an economic recession — acting alone costs money.

"The burdens rightfully should be shared. There's no reason to expect the American people to pay the price of imposing peace and order on the world," Blechman says.

When 'We Must'

This is not the first time Obama's multilateralist philosophy has been tested. During Libya's revolt two years ago, Obama summoned a broad alliance that included the Arab League and the U.N. Security Council.

"We are acting as part of a coalition that includes close allies and partners who are prepared to meet their responsibility to protect the people of Libya and uphold the mandate of the international community," he said.

More recently, when Islamist fighters overran cities in Mali, French soldiers took the lead. The U.S. provided intelligence and transportation, but never combat support.

Now, in Syria, this strategy seems to have hit a wall. Yet Obama plows ahead, even as one ally after another takes a pass.

"Multilateralism is an important part of his foreign policy," says Dennis Jett, who teaches international affairs at Penn State, "but I always think of the quote from [former Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright: 'Multilaterally whenever we can, unilaterally when we must.'"

And indeed, Obama has said that while he'd prefer an international team, if Congress approves a strike on Syria, he is prepared for America to go it alone.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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