Tuesday, 22 September 2015

A President And A Pope Head To Washington


One holds sway over a diaspora of 1 billion Catholics; the other rules a powerful communist nation of 1.4 billion. But as Pope Francis and Chinese President Xi Jinping come to Washington this week for back-to-back summits with President Obama, the scale of their global influence is where their similarities end.


Francis arrives Tuesday, riding a wave of personal popularity unmatched by his recent predecessors, a religious figure renowned for his common touch. Xi lands Thursday amid mounting unease over China’s strategic ambitions in Asia, an authoritarian leader who has cracked down on free expression.
Pope Francis speaks as he holds a Mass in the Plaza de la Revolution on Sept. 21, 2015 in Holguin, Cuba. Pope Francis is spending his second day of a three-day trip in Cuba before moving on to the United States.
Pope Francis speaks as he holds a Mass in the Plaza de la Revolution on Sept. 21, 2015 in Holguin, Cuba. Pope Francis is spending his second day of a three-day trip in Cuba before moving on to the United States.
For the Obama White House, both state visits will be suffused with a mix of pageantry, politics and policy — but to very different aims. The administration is eager to harness Francis’s moral authority to buttress Obama’s agenda in areas such as immigration, climate change and criminal justice reform. The White House is just as intent on sending a message to Xi to blunt Beijing’s provocative behavior on cyberespionage, maritime security and human rights.

Even the optics speak to the contrasting nature of the summits. While the pontiff’s time in Washington will be marked by enormous, and mostly adoring, public crowds, the Chinese leader will meet with Beltway elites in small settings, largely behind closed doors.

© AP Photo/Andrew Harnik The Flag of Vatican City flies next to American flags along West Executive Avenue outside of the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015
© AP Photo/Andrew Harnik The Flag of Vatican City flies next to American flags along West Executive Avenue outside of the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Monday, Sept. 21, 2015

 Francis’s visit is unique “in the sense that the pope is the leader of an incredibly important institution that is deeply valued by many, many Americans,” said Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s deputy national security advisers. “And he’s also a prominent, if not preeminent, moral and spiritual leader around the world on a whole host of issues.”

Xi’s meeting with Obama is an important moment in the world’s “most consequential” bilateral relationship, national security adviser Susan E. Rice said. But “we have to be upfront about our differences because they are preventing us from reaching the full potential of our cooperation.”

Historians at the White House and the State Department believe this is the first time two official state visits will happen in the same week, since the Vatican is recognized as an independent country. The close timing is not a coincidence; Francis and Xi scheduled their trips around the 70th U.N. General Assembly in New York, where they will appear after stopping in Washington.

Both leaders will be welcomed to the White House with formal arrival ceremonies on the South Lawn — Francis on Wednesday and Xi on Friday. Francis’s ceremony will feature fewer military cannons and more music, befitting a religious leader as opposed to a traditional head of state. And only Xi will receive a black-tie state dinner.

Not that the pope will lack for personal attention. Obama, who first met Francis at the Vatican in 2014, and the first lady will take the unusual step of personally greeting him when the papal plane lands at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Tuesday afternoon.

The next day, Francis will meet one on one with the president in the Oval Office, while their aides hold a simultaneous session in a separate room. White House officials emphasized that the pope is not a political leader and said there is no formal package of policy agreements the White House will unveil during his appearance.

But the pope has taken positions that are often more liberal than those of many American Catholics, and sometimes even those of Obama, on issues that the White House has made priorities, including poverty and economic inequality.

Francis’s popularity and influence extend “well beyond his Catholic flock,” said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. That includes many Republicans, who value the pontiff’s stances against abortion and same-sex marriage. Francis is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress on Thursday.

To some degree, Catholic leaders said, that has presented Obama the delicate task of collaborating with Francis without explicitly drawing too close an association, for fear of alienating the conservatives he has the potential to win over.

Charlie Kupchan, the senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council, said the Obama administration has worked behind the scenes to orchestrate an announcement that will “bring to life” the common agenda the president and Francis have “and to make sure that the visit has lasting value.”

Meanwhile, administration officials have been negotiating with the Chinese to reach concrete policy agreements. But in contrast to last fall, when Obama and Xi announced a major climate deal during a summit in Beijing, the two sides appear unlikely to achieve any significant breakthroughs on the most difficult points of tension.

In recent weeks, the administration weighed enacting unprecedented economic sanctions on Chinese businesses that have benefited from the cybertheft of U.S. trade secrets. The White House chose to hold off, in part to avoid antagonizing Xi on the eve of his visit.

Behind the scenes, administration officials have warned Chinese counterparts over the actions, and the two sides have begun talks about developing a new framework to govern cyber-issues related to business interests.

The White House has taken pains to emphasize Beijing’s cooperation on climate issues and the U.S.-led nuclear accord with Iran. But the mood on Capitol Hill has soured on China, and experts cautioned that the Obama administration is facing mounting pressure to adopt a tougher policy toward Beijing.

“This meeting takes place against a backdrop of mistrust and concern on the U.S. side that is higher than at any point since the Cold War,” said Aaron Friedberg, a former George W. Bush aide on Asian affairs who is now at the German Marshall Fund. “There is a debate underway over the future direction of U.S. policy. Questions are being raised for the first time in a serious way over the existing approach.”

At the same time, recent turmoil in China’s stock market and an overall slowdown of its economy have weakened Xi’s standing at home and abroad, potentially giving Obama more leverage in their talks.

Speaking at George Washington University on Monday, Rice said that “Obama has repeatedly made plain that state-sponsored, cyber-enabled economic espionage must stop. This isn’t a mild irritation. It is an economic and national security concern to the United States. It puts enormous strain on our bilateral relationship, and it is a critical factor in determining the future trajectory of U.S.-China ties.”

In both cases, Obama’s interactions with Francis and Xi will be watched closely for clues about the depth of their personal connections. And no matter what is announced during the visits, the political outcomes for the Obama White House will not be immediately known.

“It’s naive to think the pope is going to come to the United States and wave a magic wand, and somehow our political debates rise to a level we haven’t seen for a while,” said John Gehring, Catholic program director for the advocacy group Faith in Public Life. “In some sense, what happens after Pope Francis leaves is more important than what happens during” his visit.
Source:MSN
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