What Obama Hopes to Accomplish Abroad

What Obama Hopes to Accomplish Abroad

By Mike Memoli - March 31, 2009

During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden attracted attention for saying that world leaders would test Barack Obama early in his presidency. The provocative sentiment was seized on by Republicans as a signal of doubt even from Obama's running mate about the Democratic nominee's readiness for office, though in context Biden was actually expressing his confidence.

This week does represent a significant test for the young president, though, as he will meet face-to-face with dozens of foreign leaders for the first time as America's Commander in Chief. At the heart of President Obama's European trip is the G-20 Summit in London, where the economy - the focus of his presidency so far -- will be transferred to a global stage.

The White House says the overarching goal of the trip is to continue "reenergizing" the United States' alliances to address "shared global challenges". But here are five specific goals that the president goes to foreign soil hoping to achieve.

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1. Sell a Compromise at G-20

The G-20 Summit in London is viewed as the linchpin of the trip, but it will likely only serve as a high-profile signing-off on policies long since negotiated by representatives of the participating nations. Both the United Kingdom and the United States had hoped to sell allies on a global stimulus plan, with nations committing to spend as much as 3 percent of its GDP to reinvigorate the economy. But many European powers have been reluctant to commit to additional spending.

"I think there is a legitimate concern that [with] most countries already having initiated significant stimulus packages that we need to see how they work," President Obama conceded in an interview with the Financial Times this weekend.

Therefore, it's incumbent on Obama to sell any accord that is produced as significant. With the downplaying of expectations, such optics are important for Obama, especially because of his promise to restore America's global leadership.

"I think what they're really hoping for is the leaders ... will show that they take this whole things seriously, that they're capable of rolling up their sleeves, they're taking serious steps to do something about it," said Reginald Dale, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Center for Strategic and International Studies.

2. Improving America's Image Abroad

During the 2008 campaign, then candidate Obama drew 200,000 people in Berlin for a major speech on his view of America's relationship with the world. President Obama will revisit the theme this week in Prague, and while it may not have the same carnival atmosphere as last year's event, it marks another effort to rebuild public perception of America on the part of its new president.

A Harris poll conducted in January asked citizens of Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain and Germany if they thought Obama would have a positive or negative impact on international events now that he is president. Responses were overwhelmingly positive, from 77 percent of Britons to 92 percent of the French.

Given Obama's subsequent moves on Guantanamo Bay and Iraq, these numbers have likely remained high. But there will be more for the broader public to judge the new President on after his visit.

3. Establish Credentials As Global Leader

Putting aside February's brief visit to Canada, this trip is Obama's first major venture on foreign soil, and global leaders are going to be watching him closely as they begin to gauge what kind of partner they will have. Given his popularity, these leaders can be expected to try and cozy up to Obama in public, but they may bring a more skeptical view to private meetings, which in many cases will be the first for them.

"By the second Bush term, the relations between the Bush administration and the European governments improved greatly," Dale said. "So what you have here is sort of an inverse relationship, in that Obama is adored by the crowds, but the governments have not yet really tested him out to see what kind of a leader he will be."

4. Show of Strength Toward Russia

Perhaps no one-on-one meeting is more critical than the one Obama will hold with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, especially given the role that the U.S. hopes Russia will play in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapons program. Obama reached out to Medvedev early, suggesting in a letter that a planned missile shield unpopular with Russia could be scrapped in return for their cooperation with Iran. That, and Secretary of State Clinton's "reset" button gaffe, combined for a shaky start, one that the administration says has since been righted.

"The atmospherics around our relationship with Russia have dramatically improved in the last several weeks, but the get-together on the 1st will be an opportunity for us to make that much more concrete," Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough said Saturday.

Dale said this meeting recalls one held between President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and that it's imperative for Obama to avoid giving the same impression his predecessor did of a young, naïve counterpart.

"If you want to impress the Russians, the last thing that you want to do is to suggest that you are weak," he said. "If you start with a concession, as Obama seems to have done in that letter ... the Russians will just think you're somebody they can run rings around."

5. Continued Outreach Toward the Muslim World

Already, Obama has chosen an Arab outlet for his first televised interview. He was the first president to use the word "Islam" in an inaugural address. And he sent a video message to the Iranian people just weeks ago. Obama's efforts to engage the Muslim world continues with this trip with stops in Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday that the visit to Turkey is distinct from Obama's pledge to speak in a Muslim nation within his first 100 days, an event that has yet to be announced by the White House. Instead, Obama will hold another virtual conversation in Istanbul that is meant to include young people from Europe and southwest Asia.

"I think we're all struck by the fact that over the course of many years here the United States has lacked a concerted effort to reach out to young people throughout the world," McDonough said. "We have a very good story to tell about this country and our interests and the President looks forward to telling it."

Even if the speech is not advertised as an address to the Muslim world, "all the Muslim world will be watching" anyway, Dale notes.

In Pictures: The 10 Most Important Presidential Visits in History

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Mike Memoli covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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