No Givens As Obama Steps Onto World Stage
Sunday, March 29, 2009
After 69 days in which international issues have taken a back seat to attempts to rescue the economy at home, President Obama takes the world stage this week as a wildly popular figure among the people of Europe, but one who faces a difficult task in selling his plans to the continent's leaders.
The president plans to push for a new approach to the war in Afghanistan, aggressive action to stop the proliferation of weapons and a more united European effort to combat the global recession.
But if the U.S. president thought his popularity would cause foreign governments to fall quickly into line behind a new American leadership, experts warn, he could be in for a rude awakening.
The German government has resisted calls to deploy more combat troops to Afghanistan. Russia is pushing back against a NATO missile defense system in Poland. And the Czech prime minister last week described the U.S. plans for global economic recovery as the "road to hell."
On Saturday, the White House made clear that it is not trying to dictate spending in European capitals to revive the economy, after facing strong resistance from France, Germany and other nations.
"The notion that Europe is going to rally around this administration is being exploded," said Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation. Gardiner predicted "a rapturous welcome" for Obama from the European public but said that "when it gets down to the discussions . . . there are going to be very tense discussions."
Obama's election was heralded by many European leaders as a clean break from the administration of President George W. Bush, who angered many in foreign capitals with what they viewed as slight regard for their input. They saw Obama's Republican predecessor as reckless and too willing to act without first achieving consensus.
White House officials describe Obama's trip as a way of confronting those "inherited challenges" left over from the Bush administration, and they said they expect the three summits he will attend to produce broad agreement on new approaches to economic recovery, fighting terrorism and securing peace in unstable regions.
"We think [the trip] is obviously going to be a fundamental part of the president's agenda of restoring America's standing in the world, and particularly in Europe," said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Longtime observers of cross-Atlantic presidential trips say Obama retains much of the star power he exhibited during his campaign swing through Europe last summer, when he delivered a speech to more than 200,000 people in a German square.
"It's still a case that European leaders want to be seen next to Obama, preferably with Obama, his arms around their shoulders and a big smile, because he's so popular in Europe," said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But replacing Bush with Obama has not erased the substantial disagreements that remain between the United States and Europe.