Smart power: G-20 economic summit off to smashing start for US

Eight years ago, Barack Obama won the presidential election in part on the promise to restore America’s standing in the community of nations. The first couple of days of the G-20 economic summit in China might provide a yardstick for just how well President Obama has met that pledge … but don’t bet on the White House using it for a measurement. Thus far, the global confab appears more like a contest as to who can insult and humiliate Obama more.


First, China doesn’t even bother to wheel over a staircase to allow Obama to deplane normally from Air Force One. The New York Times tries to play it off as a misunderstanding at the top of its report, but after the jump, it becomes clear that China has turned its snub into a propaganda gold mine:

The decision deprived the president of the grand display of descending the stairs from the main doorway to a red carpet. (The carpet was there, but easy to miss, as was Mr. Obama, who popped out as if he were getting off a commuter flight at a municipal airport.)

The president walked into a chaotic scene, with Chinese security officials roping off members of the White House press corps to prevent them from recording his arrival. Even the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, was hassled by security officials.

At that point, a Chinese official said in a raised voice to a White House official: “This is our country, this is our airport.”

The official’s fury, caught on a cellphone and widely circulated, won glowing approval on one of China’s most powerful government social media sites.

On Weibo, the equivalent of Twitter, the Public Security Bureau declared: “This is our country.”

“Yup, this is very China!” the account, which has 24 million followers, noted as it showed a clip of Mr. Obama descending the small staircase. The comments on such sites appear only after passing censors.

As far as many Chinese were concerned, the Americans were at fault. “America was self-important in Hangzhou, American media falsely accused China,” read a headline on the website of, one of many news outlets that carried an article by, the online news site of Phoenix Television, which is based in Hong Kong.


Of course, China and the US already have a tense relationship, most recently over China’s aggressive attempts to close off the South China Sea to international traffic. Those tensions have grown worse during Obama’s tenure, but that’s more a consequence of Chinese aggression. Obama hasn’t done much to make Beijing nervous about becoming more aggressive, however, and it certainly appears that they’re not too worried about embarrassing Obama on the eve of the year’s biggest economic summit.

China’s not the only country feeling bold enough to disrespect Obama on this trip, either. Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte referred to Obama with a colorful local epithet while warning him via the media not to ask him about internal matters:

Duterte said before flying to Laos that he is a leader of a sovereign country and is answerable only to the Filipino people. He was answering a reporter’s question about how he intends to explain the extrajudicial killings to Mr. Obama. More than 2,000 suspected drug pushers and users have been killed since Duterte launched a war on drugs after taking office on June 30.

In his typical foul-mouthed style, Duterte responded: “I am a president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions. Putang ina I will swear at you in that forum,” he said, using the Tagalog phrase for son of a bitch. …

It isn’t clear whether Mr. Obama had planned to raise the issue of extrajudicial killings with Duterte during the scheduled meeting on the sidelines of the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“Who is he to confront me?” Duterte said, adding that the Philippines had not received an apology for misdeeds committed during the U.S. colonization of the Philippines.


Unlike with China, we actually had a friendly relationship with the Philippines a few years ago. What happened?

Finally, North Korea offered its own greeting this morning, albeit more of a middle finger to everyone at the G-20 summit. In a reminder that the six-nation talks dealing with Pyongyang has produced nothing but failure over the last eight years, Kim Jong-un shot three missiles at the Sea of Japan, breaching Japan’s security perimeter for the first time:

North Korea fired off three missiles toward Japan on Monday in a show of force as President Obama met with world leaders at the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China.

The three missiles flew more than 600 miles and landed nearly 250 miles inside Japan’s air defense zone, South Korean officials said. …

Pyongyang did not give any notice of the impending launch, Seoul’s Joint Chiefs of Staff told Yonhap News Agency, adding that Monday’s launch took place just days before North Korea is due to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of its government.

What’s next? It’s still early, but the G-20 summit looks light on actual accomplishments for the US. The Russians keep putting us off on a Syrian settlement, and thus far Obama’s most interesting comments have been on Colin Kaepernick rather than diplomacy, other than to play down the Chinese snub he received. If this is the last gasp for smart power, it’s going out pretty much the way Hillary Clinton ushered it into existence — with a laughingstock “reset” button that set the tone for all the big-power maneuvers that has followed since.


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