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Inspiring, but not yet a compelling statesman

Obama has changed the international conversation, but will need more audacity to deliver results.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, Nov. 23, 2009. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

BOSTON — Few American presidents have been greeted around the world with such relief and joy as was Barack Obama when he took office a year ago. A lot of it was simply because he was not George W. Bush. For most of the world Bush had stood for the kind of bullying, armed aggression, and a unilateral foreign policy that made it difficult to be pro-American.

The enthusiasm abroad was matched by the enthusiasm here in America, which had also become disillusioned with the Bush administration. But the “audacity of hope” was running so high a year ago that it could not possibly remain airborne at that altitude when the reality of running a country and maintaining American interests abroad came into play. It was never possible to be all things to all men.

Obama’s greatest achievement in the past year was to change the nature of the international conversation. By reaching out to Muslims in his Cairo speech, by pressing the “reset” button in relations with Russia, by reaching out to old allies who had felt disrespected by the Bush administration, by saying all the right things about recognizing China’s place in the sun, by bringing back diplomacy, Obama lanced a boil of hostility towards the United States.

And for that he won the Nobel Peace Prize — probably the only recipient ever to do so while escalating a war. In a resounding acceptance speech in Oslo, he acknowledged that his qualifications for a peace prize were somewhat questionable, and he put the world on notice that he was foremost an American president, tasked with advancing his country’s interests first.

A lot of Obama’s decline in popularity abroad is simply because of that fact. He is an American president. But diplomacy is only a means, not a goal, and so far Obama’s has achieved few tangible results.

The opening to Iran has brought nothing in the way of Iranian concessions, but it may yet make it easier for Obama to say that he has tried everything and that now is the time for increased sanctions.

Despite the constructive rhetoric, Obama came back empty-handed from China, and conceding on anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic has not brought forth much from the Russians either.

It was Obama’s two visits to Copenhagen that seemed to symbolize the American president’s declining power to influence. He first went to lobby for the Olympic games and lost. He went again to lobby for a serious international approach to climate change and lost again.