A rising political star pays his respects to the world. Or is it the other way around: The world curries favor with its American guest? With his journey to Europe and the Middle East, Obama carries his election campaign out into the world where he is awaited with friendly curiosity. Officially, Obama is appearing as the Democratic candidate for President; unofficially, he has become the person on whom the world’s hopes have been pinned. He begins the week with appearances in the Middle East, then on to Berlin on Thursday, where he will speak at the Victory Column. This will be followed by visits to Paris and London. He can count on everyone’s good will wherever he goes. Expectations of a possible president Obama are just as high as the disappointments are foreseeable.
Obama’s travels aren’t aimed at a curious public on the banks of the Thames, the Spree, the Seine or the Jordan, but rather at the voters back home. He wants to show them on an international stage that he is a man who has the stuff to be a commander-in-chief during difficult times. His hosts will, at a minimum, be afforded the possibility of measuring the candidate who, up until now, has hardly had any political contact with Europe. Obama’s meteoric rise from provincial politician to White House contender has not left many clues from which possible foreign policy directions might be drawn.
“The trip is full of great risks for Obama, but he has no other alternatives,” says Princeton University political science professor Julian Zelizer. It’s a risk because any inaccurate or thoughtless public utterance by the candidate might expose him as a foreign policy dilettante to the voters.
There’s no alternative to the trip because surveys have shown his relative inexperience in foreign affairs, compared to John McCain, to be his weakest point. Because of this, the feeling in Washington is that Obama will make surprise visits to hotspots Iraq and Afghanistan during his travels.
McCain’s criticism of Obama’s trip
Obama’s opponent, John McCain, has already called the trip a “campaign tour.”
Obama’s hosts will probably make things easy for him. Because many Europeans are irritated with George W. Bush’s foreign policies, Obama will almost be automatically trusted in advance, something that will ease his start. Under Bush, the United States forfeited much that took years to cultivate in Europe: trust, respect and its position as a role model. The Guantanamo prison camp, CIA renditions, and mismanagement in Iraq, have all stained the picture of America. In the eyes of many Europeans, Obama has emerged from the shadow of the Bush years as a guiding light.
“If he is elected President, the image of America will no longer be defined by Guantanamo, by torture, by Iraq,” says political expert, Derek Chollet, of the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “It’s difficult to imagine anything better than Obama as President as far as America’s image in the rest of the world is concerned."
The risk of unreasonably high expectations
There is a risk in this for Obama and his supporters, Chollet warns – the risk of unreasonably high expectations that may go unfulfilled: “Both the Europeans and the Americans have to manage expectations,” Chollet says.
Before his departure, Obama gave a keynote foreign policy speech from which friction points with European allies could be identified. The emphasis of his anti-terror policy will be military operations in Afghanistan, and he promised close cooperation with America’s European allies. Unwelcome obligations could arise from this, as Berlin was successful in deflecting George W. Bush’s desire for more German troops in Afghanistan.
But will Berlin be able to deflect a similar request from a well-intentioned President Obama who, unlike Bush, won’t be operating under the suspicion of reckless cowboyism?