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Obama Works to Repair America's Image in the World
Smiles and handshakes are a start, but Obama's real challenge will be to show results
By Thomas Omestad
The few "Yankee Go Home" signs that greet him abroad seem almost an afterthought, and when he enters a room of world leaders, he is the most sought-after man for a photo op and a handshake. Such is the star power that has swirled around Barack Obama on his initial foreign travels as the U.S. president.
This comes as little surprise, yet it will present a challenge of sorts for the president. Obama's relative youth and vigor, his calls for reaching out to adversaries and friends overseas, his breaks from past policy, and his triumphant personal story as the nation's first African-American president all seem to make the 47-year-old leader the best single antidote to anti-Americanism in years, maybe decades. White House officials say Obama's appeal extends beyond just the leaders of the world. "What has happened is that anti-Americanism isn't cool anymore," says top Obama adviser David Axelrod.
But this initial repositioning of the American leadership brand onto more popular terrain internationally will be the easier part of Obama's task. For all the sense of fresh starts and of goodwill, the seeds of perhaps inevitable disappointments are present as well. Visiting the Czech Republic in April, Obama got a friendly warning from Vaclav Havel, the once dissident playwright and former president who led his country's Velvet Revolution. Havel cautioned that the accumulation of exaggerated expectations could turn against the new American leader. "People may end up thinking that he has betrayed them, that he has raised their hopes too far," Havel said. A smiling Obama is said to have replied that he is aware of the danger.
Still, Obama has deftly gone about trying to reset the global image of America. The guiding impulse seems to be to start reviving U.S. standing in the world quickly in the hope that policy gains will accrue later. He has ordered the future closure of the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, barred torture of terrorist suspects, and made public the Bush administration's internal memos authorizing harsh interrogation methods. He has put Washington back at the center of efforts to curb climate change and eliminate nuclear weapons over the long run. He has moved to repair relations with Moscow, and he has modestly eased the U.S. travel ban and embargo on Cuba. In the Mideast, Obama has set plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, relaunched U.S. mediation for Mideast peace, and approved talking directly with Syria and Iran.
In a sense, though, this has all been a warm-up. In the months ahead, he faces the challenge of both overcoming opposition to U.S. policies and netting meaningful results. He has inherited resentments that linger from the Bush years, grounded in an image of a go-it-alone superpower that too often brushed aside the opinions of others, resorted to military means, and neglected global problems like climate change and arms control. Further, Obama now represents a nation whose highflying style of capitalism is blamed for a financial and economic crisis that is impoverishing millions and halting gains in prosperity around the globe. "Obama has great personal popularity, but changing the image of the United States in some of the ways it's been unpopular may well be a long process," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
Opinion polls in recent years show most nations on balance viewing U.S. power negatively—and often by wide margins. Marco Vicenzino, director of the Global Strategy Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group, says, "Things are so low with the U.S. status overseas, there's nowhere to go but up." Nonetheless, he predicts, "you'll see Obama's star power begin to wane over time."
Although Obama is the new leading man on the global political stage, the stage itself is changing in ways that have diminished the margin of American pre-eminence. The economic downturn seems to be hastening the rise of newer powers like China, India, and Brazil. Beijing has questioned the wisdom of sticking so firmly with the U.S. dollar for its overseas investments. Russia has re-emerged as a demanding foreign-policy player. European allies have grown comfortable saying no to the Americans, as they did with U.S. calls for significantly more counterrecession spending and more soldiers to fight Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Latin America has become more standoffish toward Washington as U.S. influence has declined. North Korea and Iran appear inclined to press their nuclear defiance, regardless of who lives in the White House.
Obama acknowledges a new era in which American clout needs to be wielded differently. The venue for that sentiment made it more telling—the economic crisis summit in London of the Group of 20 leading economies rather than the cozier, old-style Group of 7 or 8 world powers. "If there's just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that's an easier negotiation," Obama said. "But that's not the world we live in, and it shouldn't be the world that we live in."
A tone of humility has so far infused Obama's foreign-policy posture. His early themes—unveiled from Canada and France to Turkey and Mexico—have been partnership and engagement, rediscovered. To the dismay of conservative critics, he has conceded moments of American "arrogance." While touting America's diversity and warning against "insidious" anti-Americanism, he has also cited the country's "darker periods," including slavery and the onslaught against American Indian tribes. He has sounded notes of regret about Wall Street's excesses. In Mexico City, he admitted that American consumption of illicit drugs and sales of guns to traffickers are integral to the tragedy of Mexico's drug killings. At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he talked about his racial heritage to leaders from a region where persistent racial inequities are wedded to poverty. He told Latin leaders he wanted to do more listening than talking. And he strode across a room to shake hands with Hugo Chávez, the leftist Venezuelan leader renowned for his anti-U.S. diatribes.
Domestic critics fault some of Obama's overtures, most pointedly his seemingly amicable encounter with Chávez, as naive and assert that he is undermining American authority abroad. But the president defends infusing diplomacy with his "no-drama Obama" governing style. He used a visit to Turkey as an opportunity to extend his outreach to the broader Muslim world. He argued that the U.S. relationship with the world's Muslims "cannot and will not be based upon opposition to terrorism," a complaint voiced bitterly in recent years. Instead, he said, it would be based on "mutual interest and mutual respect." But Obama, a Christian, went further, drawing on personal connections to Islam—a father of Muslim heritage and years as a child spent in a heavily Muslim nation, Indonesia. He was introduced to the Turkish Parliament with his full name, Barack Hussein Obama.
Turkey, a U.S. ally that is majority Muslim, has itself been swept up in the recent wave of anti-Americanism. The country remains both proud of its secular democracy and touchy over how it operates in practice, and Obama won good reviews there for threading his way through those sensitivities. Last year, a mere 12 percent of Turks regarded the United States favorably. But optimism about improved ties to a United States led by Obama has grown in Turkey and generally elsewhere. "He's showing people he understands their problems, their perspectives," says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. "The first step, properly, is to clear the air," says Gelb. "He has dissipated a lot of the anti-Americanism in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East."
To much of an intrigued global audience, Obama has shown a flair for refreshing candor—to the point of making some of his counterparts look a bit stodgy and faded. But it will take time for the results of his drive to reinvent America's image to become clear. That is when Obama's openness will be judged back home.
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