WASHINGTON – 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.
“The president and America are going to listen in London, as well as to lead,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs in a pretrip briefing. “Many of the things that we’ve done over the past couple of weeks … demonstrate that America is leading by example.”
That shift has caught the attention of diplomatic analysts, some of whom say the new tack is likely to win praise, if not a change of heart on concrete steps, especially from European leaders.
“The [administration’s] goal is, I sense, to provide a balance of providing a strong sense of leadership, but … that, also, we have a president now who’s listening,” says Stephen Flanagan, a former senior director for Central and Eastern Europe at the National Security Council and now at CSIS. “That was one of the big laments, I think, about the previous administration – that they seemed to be more in broadcast mode all the time.”
The era of diffused global power has been emerging for much of the past decade – but it was something the Bush White House tried to resist, says CFR’s Kupchan. “The Bush administration should have been the one to grapple with a rebalancing of global power,” he says, “but that agenda was put off by the events of 9/11.”
Not only is Obama “playing catch-up,” he says, but he must also confront “a certain backlash against the American economic model.”
Some European officials say too much is being made of transatlantic differences over stimulus packages and troops to Afghanistan. They sense, rather, a growing cooperation on a wide range of international issues – global warming is often cited as Exhibit A – based on increasingly like-minded thinking.
Scoffing at predictions of dissonance on Obama’s trip, Klaus Scharioth, Germany’s ambassador to Washington, predicts: “You will see a new era of revitalized cooperation between America and Europe.”
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