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After Glow Of Obama's Foreign Trip, Tough Choices Remain

  • Brian Whitmore

Barack Obama and wife Michelle after his speech outside Prague Castle on April 5

Barack Obama and wife Michelle after his speech outside Prague Castle on April 5

U.S. President Barack Obama dazzled the European allies, soothed the Russians, and charmed the Chinese on his first overseas trip. But despite the feel-good optics and adoring crowds, the prospect of a world transformed is still far from certain.

Most European governments proved as reluctant as ever to make meaningful troop contributions to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, appeals from the new U.S. president notwithstanding. Obama was similarly unsuccessful in persuading the Group of 20 (G20) to enact a global economic-stimulus package.

And when Washington sought a UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea's missile launch on April 5, the threat of a Russian and Chinese veto scuttled the initiative before it even got off the ground.

By nearly all accounts, Obama's trip, with its town-hall meetings, open-air speeches, and chummy photo ops, was a triumph of public diplomacy. But analysts say the president's success in translating his considerable popularity abroad into more substantial international support for U.S. priorities is limited by real and deep divergences of interests between the United States and its European partners -- not to mention with rivals like Russia.

"The real question will be whether he will be able to whittle away at the underlying differences that exist in many of the relationships the United States has with other countries," says James Goldgeier, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of "America Between The Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11."

"There clearly are underlying differences in approach to the world between the United States and Russia. There clearly are underlying differences on big issues between the United States and the Europeans. They have to play long ball because these things can't be solved overnight. But it is not clear, even playing long ball, how much success one will have on some of these core differences that exist."

Planting Seeds, Tilling Soil

Obama is indeed known for playing "long ball." He tends to be less concerned with incremental developments and daily news cycles, instead focusing on long-term goals and strategies.

Speaking to reporters on April 7 in Istanbul, Turkey -- the fifth stop of a six-country tour -- Obama's top political adviser, David Axelrod, called for patience.

"You plant, you cultivate, and you harvest. This is a longer process than a week," Axelrod said, adding that the president's whirlwind trip is but the first stage in a long process of reviving Washington's battered standing in the world.

But picking up on Axelrod's harvest metaphor, Nicholas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, explains that rebuilding Washington's role is not just a matter of image, and it is more than simply a question of time.

"It's not a problem of laying the seeds it is a problem of whether the soil is fertile," Gvosdev says. "The soil becomes fertile when other countries feel that their interests are aligning with those of the United States. The soil becomes more receptive when there is a sense that what the U.S. is proposing is beneficial."

In terms of style and substance, Obama did give the Europeans a lot to smile about. In place of George W. Bush's clarion calls that "freedom is on the march" and lofty appeals for global democracy promotion, Obama offered pragmatic, incremental, and legalistic problem solving.

"Americanization" in Afghanistan?
In contrast to Bush's unilateralism, the new U.S. president stressed a conciliatory, multilateral approach that places a renewed emphasis on international institutions. In a recent article, "The New York Times" called Obama's approach "an anti-Bush doctrine."

But analysts say that while this may have been necessary to repair relations with the European allies, it is not sufficient to get them to back U.S. priorities.

"Now it is not just a question [of the allies saying] that 'we don't think you listen to us and you are a unilateralist cowboy out doing things,' it's 'we think you give bad advice, and when we follow your advice we feel that our sense of security is diminished.' That is the fundamental issue now," Gvosdev says.

Likewise, Josef Joffe, editor in chief of the German newspaper "Der Zeit" and a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, notes that "the gap between Obama's likability and his ability to further American interests remains quite wide."

Afghan Blues

This appears to be the case in Afghanistan, where Obama is trying to get NATO countries to contribute more to a mission that has tepid public support at best on the continent.

Prior to a summit marking the Western alliance's 60th anniversary in Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany, Obama laid out a strategy in which he narrowed the primary focus of the mission to rooting out Al-Qaeda and denying it a safe haven.

He also deemphasized the broader goal of democracy promotion, which many NATO allies viewed as overly ambitious and unrealistic.

Obama found plenty of sympathy for his approach -- but precious little in terms of support. The European allies agreed to send just an additional 5,000 troops, and 3,000 of them will be deployed only temporarily to provide security for Afghanistan's elections in August.

In contrast, Obama is increasing the number of U.S. troops to 68,000, up from the current 38,000.

Goldgeier says we are witnessing " the Americanization of the war" in Afghanistan, a development that could spell trouble for NATO's credibility down the road.

"At some point, some countries in Europe can't just keep free-riding," Goldgeier says. "If everybody agrees that the threat emanating from Afghanistan threatens us all, then at some point if they really care about having this alliance at some point they have to step up to the plate. I think that the alliance is in serious trouble over this issue."

My New Comrade

If Obama's task in repairing the Atlantic alliance presents a daunting challenge, dealing with Russia is likely to prove even trickier.

U.S. and Russian perceptions are still far apart.
By most accounts, Obama had a productive meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the G20 summit in London, with the two agreeing to complete a new strategic arms pact by the end of the year.

Medvedev praised the U.S. president, calling him "my new comrade." But analysts point out that Moscow continues to view Washington as an adversary and the two sides have diametrically opposed interests in many vital areas.

Moreover, beyond an arms-control agreement, which is in both sides' interests, it is unclear which issues Moscow and Washington can move on.

Obama is seeking Russian help in persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions, and has made it clear that if such efforts are successful he would be prepared to scrap U.S. plans for a missile-defense system in Europe that Moscow staunchly opposes. But analysts say it is unclear how much leverage Russia even has over Iran and it is equally uncertain how eager Moscow is to offer true help.

And although Washington appears to be downgrading its goal of getting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, the Obama administration has made it clear that it views both countries as allies and has rejected Moscow's claims to an exclusive sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space.

"The two countries and the two presidents have diametrically opposed views on the Eurasian space and they're not reconcilable," Gvosdev says.

"One side or the other has to compromise somewhere.... It's [also] not an area where you can just agree to disagree because so many issues flow from that -- energy issues, access to Afghanistan, and so on and so forth. You have to acknowledge that there is a fundamental disagreement about some core issues.

"When you have done that, then you can see if you can ameliorate it and work around it. But you have to come out and be prepared to accept that in their current conditions, Moscow and Washington have some irreconcilable differences."

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