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Can Europe's love affair with Obama last?
March 26, 2009 / 5:09 AM / 9 years ago

Can Europe's love affair with Obama last?

By Matt Spetalnick - Analysis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Memo to Europe: Be careful what you wish for.

Barack Obama, celebrated as the “anti-Bush” when he toured the continent last year as the Democratic presidential candidate, is headed back next week as U.S. president to attend summits in London, Prague and on the French-German border.

After ordering the closing of the Guantanamo military prison, pledging to do more to combat global warming and renouncing his predecessor’s “cowboy diplomacy,” he will be looking for something in return -- and analysts say he can’t afford to leave empty-handed.

Obama hopes to capitalize on goodwill toward his young administration as he makes his debut on the world stage, seeking better coordination on the global financial crisis and more support from skeptical allies in the Afghanistan war.

But it remains to be seen how successful he will be in converting the rock-star popularity he enjoyed as a visiting candidate into concrete gains in international statecraft.

“This trip will have Obama facing the sobering realities of world leadership,” said Christopher Preble, a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington.

The stakes are high at home and abroad.

When Obama flies out on Air Force One, he will leave behind a recession-weary country that is increasingly pessimistic over his recovery strategy and a Congress poised to take a knife to his deficit-laden $3.55 trillion budget plan.

Americans who elected him in November on a pledge of sweeping change after eight years under Republican George W. Bush are expecting tangible results from his efforts to repair America’s relations with the rest of the world.

Obama has already moved swiftly to reverse some of Bush’s most divisive policies.

His order to shut the Guantanamo prison in Cuba within a year and halt harsh interrogation of terrorism suspects was praised by the European Union and international rights groups.

Europeans highly critical of what they perceived as Bush’s go-it-alone foreign policy, epitomized by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, have welcomed Obama’s multilateral approach as well as his willingness to talk to enemies like Iran.

“MORE FOR MORE” STRATEGY

When he meets world leaders behind closed doors, Obama will likely make clear that, while his administration is ready to listen more, it will also expect more from its allies on a number of fronts.

Sarah Mendelson, a foreign policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the challenge for Obama will be deciding how hard he can afford to push European governments facing domestic pressures of their own.

Obama’s first stop -- a London summit of the Group of 20 major world economies on April 2 -- could be a big test of how long his European honeymoon will last.

It is shaping up as a tug-of-war over Washington’s call for more stimulus spending to boost the world economy and a European push to make overhauling international financial institutions the top priority.

European leaders have insisted they have no intention of building up more public debt, while Washington historically has been wary of ceding power to international regulators.

To avoid spoiling Obama’s debut in global summitry and disappointing jittery financial markets, the likeliest outcome would be for leaders to paper over their differences.

Obama’s separate talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the summit sidelines could give him a chance to set the tone with two world powers known for sometimes testy relations with Washington.

Intense debate is also expected at the NATO summit on the French-German border. Obama is likely to press for more help in Afghanistan, where violence has risen to the highest level since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001.

With allies mostly reluctant to follow Obama’s lead in deploying more combat troops, the administration’s Afghan strategy review due out shortly is expected to seek a greater NATO role in police training and development aid. But the Europeans may even balk at this approach.

Despite policy differences, Obama can still expect an enthusiastic reception in Europe, where he captured the public’s imagination with his rise to power as America’s first black president.

Obama’s travels -- including a European Union summit in Prague and a final stop in Turkey, making good on his pledge to visit a Muslim country early in his tenure -- will also serve to put the Bush era squarely in the past.

“No one should expect a lot of Bush nostalgia on this trip,” said Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy expert at Georgetown University.

Editing by Paul Simao

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