Video: Obama outlines new NATO mission

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updated 4/5/2009 6:00:07 AM ET 2009-04-05T10:00:07

Stop after stop, crowds are thronging, leaders gushing, headlines blaring. Even a roomful of foreign reporters applauded after President Barack Obama's London news conference.

They love him over here. But are they giving him anything else to take home?

It's a mixed bag: some success, several failures and much still to be determined.

The president hit the halfway point Saturday on a European trip that, by the end, will have him charming and listening (not lecturing) his way through five countries, three international summits, one-on-one meetings with at least 17 leaders, a Buckingham Palace audience, at least seven news conferences, three speeches, two question-and-answer sessions with regular-folk foreigners and three official dinners.

The locals have chased his motorcade, strained across rope lines to shake his hand and gawped at Michelle Obama's sleek, multihued travel wardrobe. Leaders as reserved as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and as competitive — potentially even hostile — as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have raved about his leadership style. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, trying to stave off his own political demise, was delighted to stand beaming at his charismatic guest's side, burbling about "exchanging ideas."

"Your first 70 days in office have changed America, and you've changed America's relationship with the world," Brown said enthusiastically.

In turn, Obama said repeatedly that the U.S. must learn as well as lead, a welcome sentiment for a world that's sick of what many see as American bullying. Still, lest the folks back home think he's gone soft in Europe, he declared on Saturday that the U.S. "has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity."

Obama even engineered a solution to a dispute over the final communique at the London summit on the global financial crisis, conducting shuttle diplomacy between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chinese President Hu Jintao. He came up with a compromise between the two leaders' opposing positions on offshore tax havens and shepherded each one's signoff. Deal done.

Nearly every day has brought requests for Obama to grace the world with more of his presence.

Like dropping rose petals
Almost like dropping rose petals as he goes, the president has been saying yes. With Medvedev, Obama announced he would go to Moscow in July. With Hu, he promised a trip to the Asian powerhouse in the latter half of the year. And Sarkozy finally secured what he wanted — a walk on the beach in Normandy with Obama to mark the June 6 D-Day anniversary.

Europe was oh so ready for a change.

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"Anyone else but Bush is better," said Lene Gade, a 43-year-old teacher in Copenhagen. "Obama is bringing the United States back on the friendlyhood track, approaching the rest of the world with a much more open mind."

But what actual achievements does all this admiration put in the new American president's hands to take back home?

For one, he and Medvedev launched talks to further reduce the two biggest nuclear arsenals on the planet.

Those talks — if successful, and this is a big if — could have an even bigger payoff by actually pushing the "reset button" everyone talks about in U.S.-Russia relations and laying the groundwork for cooperation in important areas of disagreement, such as Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.

The 20-nation global economic summit in London didn't yield what Obama most wanted, big new outlays of stimulus spending by other nations.

European wariness toward rising debt is one reason. There's also a reservoir of anger here toward America that euphoria about the election of the first black man to the U.S. presidency can't erase — as expressed by huge protests in London. Many Europeans blame the recession that's enveloping them on the U.S. — its reckless ways and global dominance.

This resentment and the recession's weakening of the U.S. had Obama confronting multiple and previously unheard-of questions about America's global standing, particularly after Brown declared that "the old Washington consensus is over."

Got to wait and see
However, Obama managed to keep out of the final communique some potentially problematic items, most notably a global superregulator with authority inside individual nations' financial systems. And on a range of smaller priorities, the agreement among wealthy and developing nations tracked Obama's goals, providing significant boosts to less-well-off countries and tightening regulation over risky financial products and institutions.

While praising the final agreement, Obama delivered a noncommittal bottom-line verdict: "We've got to wait and see."

Here in Strasbourg, the main agenda item was Afghanistan, in Obama's conversations with the French and German leaders and, even more prominently, at Saturday's NATO summit.

And what the U.S. wanted was something much more robust than the vast majority of the 28 nations of the trans-Atlantic alliance, many populated with voters deeply opposed to war engagement, were willing to give.

Time and again, Obama said Europe is in as much danger from al-Qaida extremists developing footholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan as is the United States, and so must contribute to uprooting them. "Europe should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone," Obama declared.

But only the U.S. and a handful of other countries are engaged in the dangerous fighting in Afghanistan's southern and eastern provinces — and, in a rebuke to Obama's plea, that won't change with the summit.

Still, he declared the meeting a success, with its commitments from allies to send a total of about 5,000 troops to help train the Afghan National Police and Army and to provide short-term election security, even though many will not see combat and none will go to the heavy fighting. "The trainers that we're sending in are no less important than those who are in the south in direct combat with the Taliban," the president said at a NATO-closing news conference. "Keep in mind, that this is not a ceiling for what we're achieving."

Many NATO nations prefer to focus on repairing relations with Russia.

And in fact, Obama's approach to Medvedev on this trip seemed philosophically sympathetic to Europe's.

He tamped down U.S. enthusiasm for a proposed new missile shield on Russia's doorstep in Eastern Europe, a major irritant to Moscow. And he agreed to joint language with Medvedev paying homage to the good that Moscow and Washington could do together in the world, the kind of recognition craved in the prestige-starved Kremlin.

Conservatives back home call this a soft touch that Moscow will only exploit, not honor. But Obama is gambling a new approach, while not "papering over" the many remaining differences, will yield more down the road than the acrimony of recent years.

Freshening U.S. diplomacy
Obama said everywhere he went that he was in Europe to freshen U.S. diplomacy — to choose pragmatism over ideology and collaboration over giving orders. He gave himself a pretty good grade when asked in London for a performance rating so far on that front. "International polls seem to indicate that you're seeing people more hopeful about America's leadership," he said.

That doesn't necessarily translate to nations bending to U.S. will.

Obama seemed to be saying that his new brand of foreign relations means that's OK, a message that may or may not play so well at home. "All parties have to compromise, and that includes us," he said.

Neither U.S. foreign policy nor that of other nations tends to change all that much when a government shifts to a different party.

And, as, Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put it, the Obama that came to Europe wasn't exactly what Europeans expected. Instead, he was still in many ways the kind of risk-taking American they thought his election had left behind.

So Obama brought an agenda to Europe, Kagan wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, "with what Europeans regard as some radical and frightening plans for the economy; with a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that is far more aggressive, militaristic and success-oriented than they would prefer; with ideas about Iran that are welcome (the promise to talk) but also unnerving (the threat to impose more sanctions)." Kagan said a French journalist had told him, "We have all been surprised. He is so ... American!"

'Solidarity in trans-Atlantic unity'
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, said Obama couldn't go home empty-handed — and won't.

"It was better to get perhaps a little less but demonstrate solidarity in trans-Atlantic unity than get a little more at the risk of political discord at a time in which international solidarity is extremely important and in which the U.S. is bending over backward to be perceived around the world as again being a team player," he said.

Still to come, Obama is to outline his nonproliferation strategy, including how he will make good on a campaign promise to rid the world of nuclear weapons, in Prague.

Over two days in Turkey, he'll court the Muslim world that grew to dislike the United States so much over former President George W. Bush's anti-terror policies and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using proven campaign tactics, he'll hold a wide-ranging discussion with Turkish students as well as young people piped in via video from across Europe and Asia.

"I feel like he needs to do something amazing to be called amazing," said 17-year-old Christian Uwayo of London, pivoting to a key Obama campaign line. "Maybe like 'Yes We Can, beat the recession.' ... Then he'd be my hero."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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