Obama's Europe trip: 'A good opening act'

The president made few concrete gains in his first overseas trip, but helped begin remaking America's image in the world.

Staff Sgt. Joy Pariante/Reuters/U.S. Army Handout
Surprise stop: President Obama addressed US troops at Camp Victory in Baghdad, Iraq Tuesday where he stopped on his return from Europe.

President Obama returns from a rousing, eight-day trip to Europe with his global political capital intact, even enhanced. Yet, he has also confronted the limits of star popularity.

The president – and first lady Michelle Obama, whose European performance rivaled that of Jackie Kennedy in 1961 – conquered England. But he failed to get the global economic stimulus he wanted out of the Group of 20 summit in London.

He wowed France with an energetic and youthful town hall meeting. But he could not translate that appeal into additional combat troops from NATO for Afghanistan.

And, introducing himself by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, he embraced the democratic and moderate Muslim nation of Turkey. But when he called on Europe to open up to Islam by accepting Turkey into the European Union, French President Nicolas Sarkozy told him to mind his own business.

“We’re seeing the limits of ‘Good Vibrations,’ to cite the Beach Boys,” says John Hulsman, scholar in residence at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

“Sure, everybody wants to get into the picture with the coolest guy in school," he says. "But there’s an abrupt and sobering limit to this thinking that because people like us, they are going to throw domestic concerns to the wind and join us."

Making America popular again

Obama was of course pursuing American interests on his first overseas trip as president. He underscored that point by making a surprise end-of-trip stop in Iraq, where US military commanders have become concerned by a recent uptick in sectarian violence. Deteriorating security conditions in Iraq could throw off Obama’s plans for drawing down US troops there and shifting American combat focus to Afghanistan.

But one important objective of such trips is to improve America’s image with foreign populations, noted David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, in a briefing with reporters in Turkey. His point: If people – from the French and Germans to the Turks and others in the Muslim world – have a better view of America, it will be easier for their governments to cooperate with the US on issues ranging from Al Qaeda to nuclear weapons reduction to global warming.

That doesn’t mean the White House believed a “listening tour” by a popular president would result overnight in agreement on complex international issues.

“I don’t think anyone in the administration thought the Europeans would roll over at the sight of President Obama on their shores. They had a realistic assessment going in of what they might accomplish with this trip in the short term,” says Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant secretary of state for south Asia and now director of the international affairs program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“But if the larger goal was to demonstrate to the world that a new day has dawned in US foreign policy, then I think he achieved his objective.”

For example, he says, Obama repeatedly cited America’s determination to play a leading role in addressing global warming, a position at odds with that of President Bush.

And Obama will not come home entirely empty handed. Mr. Inderfurth points to some achievements: The G-20’s approval of some $1 trillion in additional capitalization for the International Monetary Fund to help developing countries ride out the economic crisis, as well as NATO's commitment to send more trainers and civilians to Afghanistan.

No one doubts that Obama presented an America with a newly-opened ear to the world. The question remains whether he has been able to project an America that leads. And in two areas, he will soon have to produce concrete results: the economy and global warming.

Obama’s approach on the trip suggested a new understanding of America’s role as world leader. Gone is the era in which America could command and its partners would follow; what the president offered instead was an America that would lead by example.

Thus, in pursuing the goal of reduced – and eventually eliminated – nuclear arms, America will work with Russia to reduce the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles, Obama said in a speech in Prague. And as a major contributor to global warming, he said at several stops, America would assume its responsibility in addressing the problem.

“This chord of leading by example is one the president struck on every step of his trip,” says Inderfurth.

America’s example

Perhaps the most critical issue for Europe that Obama hit on repeatedly, albeit subtly, is the assimilation of immigrant populations and the breaking down of class lines, says Mr. Hulsman. “In so many ways and words he was saying, ‘There is something we do better and can teach you Europeans especially, and that is our faster and smoother assimilation of different populations.’ ”

“He didn’t have to belabor it,” Hulsman adds, “because he is proof of it.”

America’s first couple demonstrated it in different ways: Obama shaking a bobby’s hand outside 10 Downing Street; Mrs. Obama delivering a “Yes, you can!” speech to immigrant girls in Britain; Obama telling his Turkish audience that many Americans have been “enriched” by personal ties to the Muslim world, adding, “I know, because I am one of them.”

Still, the impact of this reintroduction of America to the world won’t be known perhaps for years, Inderfurth says.

“This was a good opening act, but this is a several-act play the president is embarking upon,” he says. The hard part, he adds, is still to come: "[W]hich is to put all of these aims and ideas into action."

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