Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Great expectations for Obama abroad

Team Obama is more pragmatic and less ideological than its predecessors, say diplomats and campaign advisers. Afghanistan will be a foreign-policy priority.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 2009

A Peruvian shaman perfromed a ritual of predictions for the new year in front of a picture of President-elect Barack Obama in Lima, Peru.

Enrique Castro-Mendivil /Reuters

Enlarge Photos

The Promise of Change was central to Barack Obama's presidential election. It also played well abroad to a global populace that was largely critical of US policy in Iraq and its handling of suspected terrorists, according to polls. Expectations for a new approach are high. In Africa, President-Elect Obama is seen as their man. In Europe and elsewhere, he's a new symbol of American ideals of equality – where even a black man who went to school in Indonesia can reach the pinnacle of power. But are such expectations unrealistic? How will Obama capitalize on the goodwill that now exists?

Skip to next paragraph

Can Obama restore US prestige abroad?

In many places, Obama's election has already reversed a deep pessimism, according to foreign-policy analysts, ambassadors, and intellectuals interviewed. Some American diplomats say that, despite problems that would be serious without a global financial crisis, they are optimistic, guardedly, for the first time in years. Obama does not have a long track record of foreign policy experience. But he represents an opening abroad for something new. The intelligence with which the Obama team organized the campaign and outlasted formidable opponents is not lost on foreign elites. Europeans say Obama "gets" the globalized world, and his biography gives him some unique insights.

"Obama is the most global, multilateral president we've had in a century," argues Ronald Asmus, director of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, "and he will change the direction of US foreign policy."

In Berlin in July, Obama described the world as at "a crossroads" – testing a future that will have greater unity and a "shared destiny" among peoples, or not.

No one underestimates the challenges of disunity. "We are entering territory in which the risks and penalties of getting something like the global economic crisis wrong – are greater than the stakes during the cold war … a time when the worst didn't happen," says François Heisbourg at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "No one has figured out how to deal with this new crisis; Obama will have to learn fast."

How will Obama change the 'tone' of US diplomacy, as promised during the campaign?