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updated: 6/18/2013 10:58 AM

G-8 and beyond: The world according to Obama

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  • President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. Obama and Putin discussed the ongoing conflict in Syria during their bilateral meeting.

    President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, Monday, June 17, 2013. Obama and Putin discussed the ongoing conflict in Syria during their bilateral meeting.
    Associated Press

  • Video: Obama on Syria

  • Video: Obama on NSA

Associated Press

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland -- Laden with foreign challenges, President Barack Obama is welcoming Iran's election results, taking the temperature of China's new leader and acknowledging that nations routinely spy on each other, all the while navigating difficult terrain with allies and Russia over Syria.

For Obama, who would much rather be influencing domestic policy at this point in his second term, the issues currently defining his presidency center on his international relations and, by extension, how he deals with threats to U.S. security.

In a wide ranging PBS interview with Charlie Rose and in recent days of peripatetic travel, Obama has been in the middle of global developments that illustrate both the extent and the limits of his ability to influence outcomes beyond the U.S. borders.

From his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in California a week ago to his participation in the summit of the Group of Eight industrialized economies to Wednesday's visit to Berlin, Obama has been both setting a U.S. imprint as well as reacting to the imprints of others.

The G-8 summit unfolded in the midst of awkward revelations that the British eavesdropping agency GCHQ tapped into the communications of foreign diplomats during the 2009 Group of 20 summit in London, including those of Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev. That report, in the British newspaper The Guardian, came on the heels of reports about the high-tech surveillance methods and record-gathering employed by the National Security Agency in the United States.

While the disclosures added a layer of controversy to the summit, U.S. officials said heads of state at a summit like the G-8 are perfectly aware that such spying goes on.

"Every country in the world, large and small, engages in intelligence gathering," Obama said in the PBS interview, which was taped Sunday before the Guardian revelations. "And that is an occasional source of tension, but it's generally practiced within bounds."

That unsurprising assertion was meant to distinguish between such international spying and the kind of hacking that the U.S. says the Chinese perpetrate against U.S. corporations.

"There is a big difference between China wanting to figure out how can they find out what my talking points are when I'm meeting with the Japanese, which is standard fare, and we try to prevent them from penetrating that, and they try to get that information," he said. "There's a big difference between that and a hacker directly connected with the Chinese government or the Chinese military breaking into Apple's software systems to see if they can obtain the designs for the latest Apple product. That's theft."

It was a remarkably direct accusation coming just a week after Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in a desert resort in California.

"We had a very blunt conversation about cybersecurity," Obama said of his talks with Xi.

Obama went further, describing Xi as a leader who "has consolidated his position fairly rapidly inside of China" and who "is younger and more forceful and more robust and more confident, perhaps, than some leaders in the past." In the interview he prodded the Chinese to accept the responsibility that comes with being a major economic power while approving of China's efforts to confront North Korean belligerence.

U.S. officials busy with Syria at the G-8 in Northern Ireland said they were reassured by Iran's election of the relatively moderate cleric Hasan Rowhani as president, not so much because they expect a swift change in policy but because it reflects a desire by the country's people to change course.

"The Iranian people rebuffed the hard-liners and the clerics in the election who were counseling no compromise on anything any time anywhere," Obama said on PBS. "Now, Mr. Rowhani, who won the election, I think indicated his interest in shifting how Iran approaches many of these international questions, but I think we understand that under their system the supreme leader will be making a lot of decisions."

At the G-8, Obama has been forced to defend his decision to arm Syrian rebels, creating a direct confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been providing military support to the Bashar Assad regime.

Indeed, the full range of Obama's personal relations with foreign leaders has been on display at the G-8, from his friendly, competitive banter with British Prime Minister David Cameron to the stiff and distant interplay with Putin.

To Obama, Cameron is "David," and he teased him Monday during a race to paint a poster designed by schoolchildren. Examining his work, he said of the children, "I'm not as good as these guys, but I'm better than David."

With Putin, there was no chemistry. Obama's national security aide Ben Rhodes, in diplomatic understatement, described Obama's relationship with Putin as "businesslike." Where Obama was cheeky with Cameron, he was self-effacing with Putin.

Summing up their two-hour private meeting on Monday, Obama said: "We compared notes on President Putin's expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball. And we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover."

Putin, through an interpreter, replied, "The president wants to relax me with his statement of age."

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