Image: Obamas depart for Europe
Jason Reed  /  Reuters
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama prepare to leave Tuesday for Europe.
By Political Reporter
NBC News
updated 3/31/2009 3:03:42 PM ET 2009-03-31T19:03:42

President Barack Obama embarked on his first trip outside North America on Tuesday, arriving in London for the G-20 summit. After the U.K., he heads to France, Germany, the Czech Republic, and then it’s on to Turkey.

The president will likely receive a rock-star reception abroad, as he did during the campaign, but with recent criticism from some European leaders — resisting the president’s call for more economic stimulus and increased troops in Afghanistan — Obama faces a crucial foreign policy test early in his young presidency.

The president will have a lot on his plate during the trip. It will provide a measure of his influence, particularly in reference to the world economy, Afghanistan, and the Muslim world.

The world economy: Searching for results
Obama has called on the G-20 nations to take bold action to right their economies, namely implementing robust stimulus plans and tightening regulations.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others aren't exactly buying into the big spending.

“I will not let anyone tell me that we must spend more money,” said Merkel, head of Europe's largest economy. Her comments Saturday were in response to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's proposed $2 trillion "Global New Deal."

Merkel told the New York Times: “International policy is, for all the friendship and commonality, always also about representing the interests of one’s own country. ... On an international level, we must all recognize that after the crisis we need to return again to solid financial policies. Otherwise, we run the risk of already preparing the next crisis.”

Spanish Finance Minister Pedro Solbes echoed her statements. “In these conditions, I and the rest of my colleagues from the eurozone believe there is no room for new fiscal stimulus plans,” he said, per the London Times.

And Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek went so far as to call Obama's stimulus proposals a "road to hell." (It’s worth noting, however, that Topolanek made the comments the day after he was ousted by his parliament after a vote of no confidence. Topolanek remains as prime minister until parliament finds a replacement.) Obama is slated to meet with Topolanek on Saturday.

The comments are a blow to Obama and Brown. The statements strike at Brown, in particular, who faces his own political troubles at home. He came to the U.S. asking for money and hoping to bask in the political popularity of the new American president.

On Saturday and Sunday, the president will be in the Czech Republic for a summit with the European Union. There, he will make a speech on nuclear proliferation. He will also hold a bilateral meeting with Russia, a key player in limiting proliferation. Might he face a similar criticism abroad as at home: How many things can he ask the world to do at once?

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Not to be overlooked, perhaps the most important meeting will be the one with China’s Hu Jintao. Obama wants to call on China to correct what he perceives to be a trade imbalance. But what leverage does this president really have when the U.S. is increasingly reliant on China buying American debt — something about which Hu has expressed serious concerns?

Afghanistan: Familiar resistance to an American war
Intellectually, some would argue, the rationale for involvement in Afghanistan always made a lot more sense than the Iraq war ever did. Yet days after unveiling his plan for Afghanistan, the president is having a tough time getting leaders abroad to sign on.

Question: Wasn’t Obama, just by being elected, supposed to change America’s relationship with the world? Wasn’t the world supposed to jump on board?

That analysis always seemed too simplistic and superficial, and Obama’s popularity at times appears to be something world leaders have to deal with, rather than something they necessarily embrace.

After all, they have their own self-interests at stake, as Merkel said, and there’s no greater self-interest than their pockets. Other countries’ economies are faltering as badly, if not worse, than the U.S. economy, and in tough financial times, there is little enthusiasm for the ramping up of another difficult war in a country in which the West has had little success.

Australia, Germany and France for example, have shown little interest in upping troop levels.

Sound familiar?

The Muslim world: What’s the impact?
Obama will wrap up his trip with a two-day stop in Turkey beginning Sunday night. It will be his first visit as president to a predominantly Muslim country.

In Istanbul, perhaps the ultimate symbolic meeting place of East and West, the perceived leader of the Western world holds a roundtable with Eastern students.

It’s the latest in a diplomatic push for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. First, there was the president’s inaugural speech, in which he declared, “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

Second, he announced he would be closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. (This, in particular, has led the likes of former Vice President Dick Cheney to criticize the president as making the U.S. less safe. That led to a sharp philosophical rebuke from Obama.)

And in sharp contrast to the Bush administration, Obama also granted his first formal TV interview as president to Al-Arabiya, an Arabic television network. In that interview, Obama said that when it comes to Middle East policy, "all too often the United States starts by dictating." He added, “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy."

Then for the Iranian New Year, the president taped a video greeting distributed to Arabic channels. In that message, he signed off in Farsi, the predominant language in Iran.

Obama has been hailed by moderate Arabs for a change in tone from the Bush administration. He is sure to be warmly received by leaders there. But what will the hand-gripping and smiles for the cameras translate into? Troops in Afghanistan? An increase in funding for intelligence operations to combat terrorism? It’s unclear.

The real measure of whether Obama’s approach is a success is if there are tangible results — something the administration says will come in time.

"From his first day in the Oval Office when he picked up the phone and called leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, the president made very clear that he was addressing these things differently," said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, on a conference call with reporters. "He was going to be working in a collaborative fashion with our friends and allies — again, not because it's particularly popular there or anywhere else, but because he thinks that's the best way to move our national security interests. And he believes ultimately that, I think, that many of our allies see it the same way."

What will his trip mean back home?
How will Americans judge the president's trip? As his budget is being debated back home, will Obama's higher international profile translate into a bump in the polls? Or could he be hurt if he doesn't bring back tangible commitments and results?

One thing is certain. There are concrete ways to measure President Obama's global influence, and they are coming very early in his term.

Domenico Montanaro covers politics for NBC News

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