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Will Obama defy NATO's expectations?

Afghanistan, soul-searching will top NATO summit agenda.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks with France's President Nicolas Sarkozy as France's first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (covered) welcomes U.S. first lady Michelle Obama at Palais Rohan in Strasbourg April 3, 2009. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — In France, it's good to be an Obama.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrived in Strasbourg today, fresh from the G20 summit in London. They were met by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni.

Several thousand cheering French were also on hand to welcome the Americans to a key NATO summit to be held here and in the German border town of Kehl over the next two days.

But as the topic switches from the global economy to the future of this important transatlantic alliance,  the American president is likely to hear less cheering from allies.

Still, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer insists there is “much to celebrate” as the bloc marks its 60th year of existence at the summit co-hosted by France and Germany.

“An alliance that started as 14 short treaty articles has evolved into the world’s premier security organization,” de Hoop Scheffer proclaims in a summit statement on the NATO website, “and contributed to an unprecedented period of peace, freedom and prosperity for all its citizens.”

But the present period is also “unprecedented” for the difficulties the bloc faces, both externally — grappling with the resilient Taliban in Afghanistan and an unpredictable Russia — and internally, with disagreements over enlargement, the bloc’s sphere of engagement and a replacement for the outgoing de Hoop Scheffer.

While President Obama was expected to continue the usual U.S. tactic of cajoling allies into sending more resources to Afghanistan — de Hoop Scheffer even joked that leaders should expect their phones to ring right after Obama’s inauguration — that’s not going to happen this week. Obama wants willing volunteers.

This change of tactic is a conscientious effort, a senior U.S. official in Brussels explained during a briefing, to divert from the past practice of the “U.S. telling people what to do.” That led allies to focus on whether they agreed with what Washington wanted. This, he said, diverted attention from the ultimate objective and fomented controversy between the U.S. and its allies.

Instead, Obama will detail the new U.S. strategy on Afghanistan and Pakistan in his address to counterparts at the summit, and will then wait for offers of help, the U.S. official said. He also mentioned that some countries have already promised increases in their commitments and he hopes more pledges will be made at the summit — particularly in help for training the Afghan police.