Obama faces major foreign-policy tests as the world watches

Foreign leaders will look for American leadership and effectiveness at a full schedule of events this week. On Tuesday, Obama will attend UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's meeting on global warming.

President Obama enters the most intense foreign-policy week of his presidency – three days at the United Nations in New York, followed by the Group of 20 summit in Pittsburgh – with a widely pro-Obama world wondering if he can move from compelling words to action.

Mr. Obama, who wowed foreign audiences as a young, charismatic candidate reminiscent of John F. Kennedy, extended the world's love affair with him into his presidency through a series of speeches – in Prague, Czech Republic; Moscow; Cairo; and Accra Ghana. He spoke of a newly cooperative America while offering vision on such global issues as nuclear proliferation, disarmament, Middle East peace, and development.

Administration officials crowed that those speeches advanced America's image in the world to levels it had not enjoyed in decades.

But the world is looking for American effectiveness and leadership beyond nicely delivered words, foreign-policy analysts say. So this first visit to the UN and then a summit on the global financial crisis will be a test of Obama's ability to get things done.

"The president needs to convert his widespread popularity in much of the world into effectiveness in much of the world," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "The challenge for President Obama is to create an environment where the US is not only seen as having an attractive leader, but the US is seen as setting an agenda which the world is willingly following."

Over the next week, the president won't lack for issues on which to show his leadership and to press for action. Included on his agenda:

Climate change. Obama will attend UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's high-level meeting on global warming Tuesday, with an eye to pushing toward a global accord at an international conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December.

Obama's speech to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday.

A number of crucial bilateral meetings. Obama will meet with Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama; Chinese President Hu Jintao on what will be the first visit to the UN by a chief executive of the People's Republic of China; and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, a meeting expected to focus on moving arms reduction forward.

Nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. On Thursday, Obama will chair a Security Council meeting on nuclear issues – the first time an American president will preside over a Council session.

Middle East peace. Despite apparently dashed hopes for announcing a resumption of peace talks, Obama will still hold a trilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Global financial turmoil. Obama hosts the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh on Thursday and Friday. Extending or ending stimulus packages, executive pay and bonuses, and bank regulation are among the issues on the agenda.

Obama may bask in warm applause when he addresses the UN, but, some analysts say, the new regard for America and its leader means little if it stops there.

"The crucial but as yet unanswered question is this: To what extent is the surge in favorability translatable into foreign-policy actions that serve US interests, answer global challenges, and meet the security threats we and our allies face?" asks Robert Lieber, a professor of government and US foreign policy at Georgetown University in Washington.

"We're still early in the game at only eight months into this presidency, but so far, any tangible gains are yet to be seen," he says.

World leaders are also watching Obama for signs of toughness and on his ability to get things done at home, Mr. Lieber says. So while the healthcare debate may seem to be a strictly domestic issue, for example, it also serves as a gauge for foreign leaders on Obama's effectiveness.

On that score, some foreign leaders are already said to have questions about Obama's leadership, even when their home constituencies remain enamored of him. Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, is reported to be deeply disappointed that Obama has not so far been able to win approval – in a Congress ruled by his own party – of legislation reducing carbon emissions.

"Soon enough, the question will become whether this president is tough enough and strong enough" in the crucial role the American president plays in the world, Lieber says.


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