The Take

Trip Abroad Will Test Ambitions Obama Set as a Candidate

By Dan Balz
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Can President Obama lead the world? That may overstate the ambitions Obama will take with him to Europe today for a week-long series of summits and speeches. But it is the question that will shadow him throughout his trip and is likely to become the basis for judging the outcome upon his return.

Candidate Obama promised Americans a fresh start with the rest of the world, after eight years in which President George W. Bush's policies and style made this country deeply unpopular abroad. Even before Obama was serious about running for president, he had concluded from the reaction he received on a trip to Africa in the summer of 2006 that his election had the potential to instantly change international perceptions of America.

That seems indisputable. As a leader, Obama is significantly more popular overseas than Bush ever was. The question is whether Obama has a strategy in mind to leverage that popularity to bend recalcitrant allies in directions he would like them to go, whether that means producing a coordinated response to the international economic crisis or winning concrete support for his new policies for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Implicit in Obama's campaign rhetoric was that he would seek cooperative relationships with America's allies, rather than pursuing the unilateralism that often marked Bush's approach, particularly in his first term. Stylistically that should make him a more appealing U.S. leader to his counterparts in Europe and elsewhere. Substantively, it leaves considerable power in the hands of U.S. allies to resist measures Obama may be advocating, unless he proves to be powerfully persuasive in both public and private venues.

Last summer, Obama got his first taste of this when he spent a week traveling to Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe. Because he was there as a candidate, he was not selling a particular set of policies. Mostly he was trying to make a good impression on leaders with whom he might end up dealing and to win an election back home. But at the end of the trip, he talked about the potential value of having a president who enjoys public goodwill in countries around the world.

One of the central debates of the presidential campaign, he said, was over which candidate was best positioned to forge coalitions that could successfully deal with big issues, such as terrorism, climate change and the economy. "What I thought was useful was to give the American people some sense of how I was approaching these issues, but also to give them a sense that the world can be responsive to this approach and that it will make a difference," he said that week.

He used Afghanistan as an example of how an Obama presidency might succeed where Bush's had failed. He was already advocating the need to send more troops to Afghanistan and for troop support from other countries. Leaders in those countries, he argued, would be more likely to cooperate if their constituents were more favorably disposed toward the United States and its president.

"We put them in a tough bind if we're not attentive to their constituencies. So I wanted to give voice to that very practical, hard-headed approach to foreign policy," he said.

Obama's advisers argued at the time that the real value of the week abroad would come if he won the election. He would start his presidency having taken the measure of a number of key world leaders (and they of him) and would need no on-the-job training once in office.

All of that will be put to the test this week, under circumstances that are significantly different than they were last summer, given what has happened to the world economy.

Obama has demonstrated that he can command attention on the world stage, and no doubt he will do so again this week. How much that attention translates into influence on the other leaders with whom he will be meeting will determine whether the president's first big foreign journey meets the expectations he set as a candidate.

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