Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Obama's Global Coming Out Party: An Adoring Public, But Skeptical Heads of State

Photo credits: Ron Edmonds/AP

Now that Obama’s giddy followers in America have all bumped their heads against the reality that their leader is absolutely not capable of instantaneously uniting red states and blue states solely by virtue of his personality – see congressional vote on stimulus package – these same followers are poised for yet another jolt as the rock-star president heads off to Europe today.

Headlines in the media are blaring Obama’s soaring poll numbers in this country as he and Michelle lift off in Air Force One for the G-20 meeting in London. And most news accounts are reminding us of Obama’s adoring public abroad.

I had to sift through quite a number of online news sources this morning to come across the balanced coverage of Obama’s trip by the Christian Science Monitor’s Howard LaFranchi titled: On European trip, rock-star Obama faces skeptical allies. LaFranchi predicts Obama may encounter in Europe what he’s already experienced in his own country: a personal popularity way out of sync with the reaction to his policies by political leaders.

LaFranchi writes:

The new American president's debut on the world stage, beginning Tuesday in London in advance of the Group of 20 meeting, is sure to have its share of "Hello!" magazine moments and glamour. He will, after all, meet with Queen Elizabeth II, an established member of the thin upper crust of global personalities and an international rock star in her own right.

But President Obama may be speaking sotto voce and out of the spotlight while in the company of presidents and prime ministers. That's because he is expected to articulate positions and prescriptions that are out of step with leaders from Western Europe, China, Russia, India, and beyond – on issues ranging from the global economic crisis to the war in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Mr. Obama may well find himself in the inverse position from where George W. Bush stood by the end of his White House run. Whereas Mr. Bush enjoyed greater cooperation and like-mindedness with many key foreign leaders, though he remained unpopular with the international public, Obama is expected to encounter an adoring public but a deep skepticism – even resistance – among heads of state.

"By the end of his second term, Bush was much closer to the European governments than he had been, but he was still strongly disapproved of by a lot of the general public," says Reginald Dale, an expert in transatlantic affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) here. "Obama is adored by the general public but still has to prove himself to the governments."

How well Mr. Obama can parlay his personal popularity into convincing leadership is a key question hanging over his global coming-out party. With many leaders blaming the United States for planting the seeds of the first global recession since World War II, America's ability to continue as the world's unrivaled power, whether in economic or other matters, is likely to be an undercurrent of meetings with the G-20 leaders, NATO, and in bilateral meetings with his counterparts.

"There is a certain paradox or irony to this trip, in that Obama remains wildly popular in Europe and elsewhere, with Europeans still giddy about Bush's replacement by a president who is much closer to European preferences and sensibilities," says Charles Kupchan, an international-affairs expert at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). "Yet when it comes to the big issues to be treated on this trip ... Obama seems unlikely to preside over any meeting of the minds or to succeed with either his popularity or power in winning foreign leaders over to America's positions."

Obama is the first American president to preside over an international system that is dramatically different from the one stitched together after World War II and the cold war, when America unquestionably sat in the driver's seat, Mr. Kupchan adds. "Now the Chinese and the Russians, the Indians and Indonesians and Turks, are much more willing to flex their muscles and demand their fair share of decisionmaking in global councils," he says.

Besides the highlight of meeting the British sovereign, an event Obama is said to be anticipating with excitement, the new president will attend several meetings during his eight days abroad:

•A Group of 20 summit in London Thursday, where leaders of the world's largest economies will address the global financial crisis.

•A weekend NATO summit in France likely to be dominated by the alliance's faltering effort in Afghanistan.

•A US-European Union summit in the Czech Republic. The leader of the EU last week called Obama's proposal for larger global economic stimulus packages "the way to hell."

•Two days of meetings and events in Turkey, including an international conference on reducing tensions between the Muslim and Western worlds.

•A raft of bilateral meetings with figures ranging from Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and China's Hu Jintao to the leaders of India and Saudi Arabia.

The White House recently signaled it has all but given up hope that the leaders Obama meets this week will make major commitments along the lines the US would like to see – either in terms of big spending packages for the economy or of additional troops or resources for Afghanistan. Instead, US officials are offering a scenario in which Obama leads by listening – a departure from his predecessor, they say – and by example.

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  2. Hi Anonymous,

    Great to hear from you and thank you for the kind words! They mean a lot.

    Best wishes for 2010!