Talk about making the most of the situation. You have to shake your head at the amount of diplomatic business President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have been able to do the past few days.
Using the G20 meeting in London and a conference on Afghanistan in the Netherlands as venues to meet with a variety of foreign leaders, Mr. Obama and his chief diplomat have made the most of the circumstances.
Even before Air Force One landed outside London, Clinton had already announced the next move in the administration's effort to open a diplomatic dialogue with Tehran. Oh so conveniently, Clinton's special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, found himself sitting near Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, Mohammed Mehdi Akhondzadeh. And Voila! A handshake between American and Iranian diplomats and their exchange of a diplomatic niceties and Clinton was able to tell a press conference "it was cordial, unplanned and they agreed to stay in touch" as Holbrooke's effort moves forward.
Clinton was also clear that she just happened to be sitting on the other side of the room and, displaying the deft touch of a seasoned politician, said, "I myself did not have any direct contact with the Iranian delegation." Translation: If things work out there is plenty of time for me to meet with Iranian officials; if they don't work out, all this happened at lower levels and the Iranians are just not interested in working with the new administration. Either way, check off the next move on Iran and look for Holbrooke to have further meetings with Iranian officials. No word yet on how Ambassador Dennis Ross, the special envoy for Iran, fits into the picture.
To tackle another outstanding issue between Washington and Tehran, Clinton read publicly from a letter she said was given directly to Iranian officials asking for more information about and access to three Americans either missing or being held in Iran. It was a very public marker intended to pressure Tehran for an update on these cases.
While this was going on, the National Security Council's Russia expert, Michael McFaul, was sent to The Hague to meet with Russian officials and prepare the announcement - made a day later in London - that Mr. Obama and Russia's President Dimitri Medvedev will meet in Moscow this summer to prepare a new agreement related to arms control and missile defense, two thorny issues which need work between the two countries.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a group of Russian journalists in The Hague that "the new atmosphere of mutual trust is an atmosphere which does not create the illusion of good relations because they develop well on a personal level, but which ensure taking into account mutual interests and readiness to listen to each other." Just in case anyone did not grasp the reference to the rocky relationship between Washington and Moscow during the Bush administration, Lavrov added, "We missed this much in past years." Check off the box - not to mention the "reset" button - for another troubled relationship getting off to a positive start.
If Washington is working to solve its problems with Moscow, well, Beijing doesn't want to be left to wait in line for attention. And, lo and behold, it will not have to wait. Just after news arrives of the Obama-Medvedev meeting, the White House announces from London a trip by the president to China in the second half of 2009. Further, Washington and Beijing say they'll resume high-level talks on a regular basis including such subjects as human rights. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the State Department's Clinton will head the American team. Check yet another box.
All this before the G20 really gets down to the business of tackling reforms aimed at solving the world's economic crises. And after that meeting concludes, Mr. Obama and his team head for a NATO summit in France. Expect more meetings and probably more surprise announcements. To be clear, none of these measures amount to real diplomatic achievements. They fall more properly in the category of trying to set a positive agenda as the Obama administration, not in office for even three months, tries to get off on the right foot in its relations with leaders in other key capitals.