- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

UPDATE: President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrived in London on Tuesday evening on the first leg of an eight-day trip to Britain, France, Germany, the Czech Republic and Turkey.

• • •

President Obama‘s first major trip abroad is a highly anticipated event that will test whether the new president can leverage his stratospheric popularity to the nation’s competitive advantage.

Mr. Obama’s election by the American people has already changed the way many around the world view the United States, and the White House thinks this trip will further help them in “restoring America’s standing in the world,” as one official put it over the weekend.

But it is yet to be seen whether Mr. Obama can use his more conciliatory approach to foreign policy - in contrast to former President George W. Bush’s often harder, blunter line - and still be a tough negotiator in the murky and complicated world of international diplomacy.

The list of challenges and issues facing Mr. Obama is long and daunting: The global economic crisis, reform of financial regulatory structures, Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, the need for more contributions from European nations in Afghanistan, and the complex relationships with Russia and China are just some of the big-ticket items.

Mr. Obama is headed to a global economic summit in London and a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Strasbourg-Kehl, which is on the border of France and Germany. Summits such as these are dominated by predictable statements of victory by each country, declaring that they have come away with all the concessions they were seeking going in.

The real winners and losers, however, are often not immediately clear.

Some observers said Mr. Obama’s considerable charisma could in fact be the difference in achieving diplomatic victories on several fronts.

“The way one leader projects himself can help get others do what you want them to do. It’s not the only thing for sure, but it certainly helps at the margin, and it’s often at the margin where the difference between success and failure lies,” said Richard Bush, director of the center for Northeast Asian policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

“Using Obama’s charisma to gain some diplomatic advantage applies not only to China, it applies to South Korea, it applies to Russia, it applies to the other leaders that he’s going to meet - that he display sensitivity toward those countries concerns but also a strong will to do what’s necessary for the United States,” Mr. Bush said.

The Group of 20 summit in London, on Wednesday and Thursday, is expected to produce agreement on broad principles for financial regulatory reform, and on an expansion of reserve funds for the International Monetary Fund, but little else in the way of specifics.

Much of the action at the summit will be, as it usually is, on the sidelines. Mr. Obama will hold separate meetings Wednesday with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Queen Elizabeth II and conservative leader David Cameron, leader of the main British Parliament opposition party.

On Thursday, Mr. Obama will meet with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Saudi King Abdullah and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.

On Friday, Mr. Obama will go to France for the NATO summit, where the organization faces a crossroads on its 60th anniversary. Many in Europe question the need for NATO now that the European Union exists. And the U.S. questions NATO’s capability to do what it was founded to do, as evidenced by the trouble getting NATO members to contribute to the fight in Afghanistan.

Then, there is Russia, whose invasion of Georgia over the summer was seen by many as a reaction to years of NATO expansion closer and closer to its border.

Mr. Obama will meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday.

“President Obama’s first trip to Europe is maybe the most anticipated visit by an American president to Europe, probably in my lifetime,” said Craig Kennedy, president of the German Marshall Fund.

On Sunday, the president heads to Prague for meetings with Czech President Vaclav Klaus and Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who last week said that Mr. Obama’s economic agenda is a “road to hell.”

On Monday and Tuesday, Mr. Obama will be in Turkey for meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials.

It will be the first trip to a Muslim nation for America’s first black president, who spent a few years of his childhood with a Muslim stepfather in Indonesia.

Before leaving Istanbul on Tuesday, Mr. Obama will meet with “local cultural leaders” as well as with students.

In recognition of Turkey’s historical role as a bridge between Europe and the Middle East, the roundtable with students will be connected to U.S. embassies in both those regions, where young people from different countries will join in on the dialogue.

“I think we’re all struck by the fact that over the course of many years here the United States has lacked a concerted effort to reach out to young people throughout the world,” said Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser to the president.

“We have a very good story to tell about this country and our interests and the president looks forward to telling it.”

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