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On European trip, rock-star Obama faces skeptical allies

While he is popular, American policies are not. He will be hard-pressed to
win concessions on his plans for the economy or Afghanistan.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2009

President Obama and first lady Michelle waved as they departed the White House to attend the G-20 Summit in the UK.

Ron Edmonds/AP

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The new American president's debut on the world stage, beginning Tuesday in London in advance of the Group of 20 meeting, is sure to have its share of "Hello!" magazine moments and glamour. He will, after all, meet with Queen Elizabeth II, an established member of the thin upper crust of global personalities and an international rock star in her own right.

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But President Obama may be speaking sotto voce and out of the spotlight while in the company of presidents and prime ministers. That's because he is expected to articulate positions and prescriptions that are out of step with leaders from Western Europe, China, Russia, India, and beyond – on issues ranging from the global economic crisis to the war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Mr. Obama may well find himself in the inverse position from where George W. Bush stood by the end of his White House run. Whereas Mr. Bush enjoyed greater cooperation and like-mindedness with many key foreign leaders, though he remained unpopular with the international public, Obama is expected to encounter an adoring public but a deep skepticism – even resistance – among heads of state.

"By the end of his second term, Bush was much closer to the European governments than he had been, but he was still strongly disapproved of by a lot of the general public," says Reginald Dale, an expert in transatlantic affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here. "Obama is adored by the general public but still has to prove himself to the governments."

How well Mr. Obama can parlay his personal popularity into convincing leadership is a key question hanging over his global coming-out party. With many leaders blaming the United States for planting the seeds of the first global recession since World War II, America's ability to continue as the world's unrivaled power, whether in economic or other matters, is likely to be an undercurrent of meetings with the G-20 leaders, NATO, and in bilateral meetings with his counterparts.

"There is a certain paradox or irony to this trip, in that Obama remains wildly popular in Europe and elsewhere, with Europeans still giddy about Bush's replacement by a president who is much closer to European preferences and sensibilities," says Charles Kupchan, an international-affairs expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). "Yet when it comes to the big issues to be treated on this trip ... Obama seems unlikely to preside over any meeting of the minds or to succeed with either his popularity or power in winning foreign leaders over to America's positions."

Obama is the first American president to preside over an international system that is dramatically different from the one stitched together after World War II and the cold war, when America unquestionably sat in the driver's seat, Mr. Kupchan adds. "Now the Chinese and the Russians, the Indians and Indonesians and Turks, are much more willing to flex their muscles and demand their fair share of decisionmaking in global councils," he says.