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NEW YORK — On the 71st day of his presidency, Barack Obama sets out into a world that welcomed his election as a chance to re-engage with America after eight years of President George W. Bush.
Obama departs on his first trip overseas as president (he previously visited Canada) from the shores of the country that elected him in part to help improve America’s reputation and standing in the world that had been so damaged by the war in Iraq, the unilateralism of Bush, and images of torture and rendition.
But things have changed since the world heralded Obama at what seemed a global inauguration on the clear, cold January day when he took the oath of office.
Even though he remains extraordinarily popular around the world, Obama is heading straight into economic blowback for the made-in-America global financial crisis when he arrives in London Tuesday for the Group of 20 summit.
America’s allies, as well as its enemies, seem suddenly emboldened by a feeling that U.S. economic hegemony must be checked after the unbridled greed from Wall Street to Main Street and the reckless lack of regulation in New York and Washington led to the worst economic collapse since World War II.
Obama will need every bit of his gift for oratory as well as his ear for the voices of the world if he is to make this trip a success in presenting and positioning a new American foreign policy.
And unlike other presidents who have traveled overseas to get up above the fray of domestic politics, Obama’s trip is inextricably linked with the extraordinary challenge he faces in reviving the economy. In these uncertain times, this much is certain: the economic crisis is a global crisis and the only solution will be a global solution.
Obama has a hard week ahead of him.
He will inevitably confront resentment — even from European allies — over his proposed global stimulus plan as the only prescription that will save the global economy.
The French, the Germans and many others are just not buying it. They do not believe they should be called upon to pump more money into their economy to spur international economic growth. They are convinced the U.S. should be brought to see the light of a more Euorpean-style brand of regulation and their own strand of capitalism woven with socialism that has provided a safety net of health care and education and social services as well as great capitalist growth.
They believe America needs to temper its capitalism or risk bringing the whole economic order down with it.
This is perhaps the greatest fault line running through the G20 summit. But other fissures are opening as well.
The so-called BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India and China — are all bristling as well and are expected to challenge the Obama administration’s stated goal of revitalizing the International Monetary Fund as a key part of its global strategy for economic recovery. China and India in particular are expected to assert that America has lost its authority to set the agenda and that the IMF, with its Western-dominated approach to global issues, is not necessarily the right tool for the world to confront the economic crisis. They will be coming with ideas of their own and will make a concerted effort to play a greater role in shaping a global economic policy.
Another backdrop to the G20 summit will be Afghanistan and the Obama administration’s announcement last week that it would send 4,000 more advisers and troops on top of the 17,000 additional troops that have already been called up for a “surge” in Afghanistan over the summer leading up to elections now scheduled for August.
After the G20 summit ends on Thursday, Obama will head to the French-German border for a NATO Summit, then on to the Czech Republic. The NATO allies have a profoundly different sense of the mission in Afghanistan and Obama is likely to face resistance to a build up particularly at a time when voters in most NATO countries are calling for their governments to withdraw troops.
It will be an existential moment for NATO. There are newly admitted Eastern European countries nervous about Russia reasserting itself in dramatic ways in the region it once dominated.
The president’s trip is fraught with peril and potential. It is a defining moment in the first 100 days of this presidency and the stage is set for Obama to introduce the parameters of a foreign policy that is just now beginning to emerge.