Obama in Europe: His Four Biggest Challenges

Obama in Europe: His Four Biggest Challenges

A European vacation it is not. Over the next week, President Barack Obama will board his plane anew nearly every day so that he can
attend individual meetings with at least 17 political leaders from 11
nations, and appear at summits and forums in five countries to discuss
international economic recovery, national security, cyber threats and global
warming. He will have tea with a Queen , a private chat with a King
, and convene a round table with students .

At each stage of the trip, whether in a castle or a palace,
diplomatic opportunity and danger lurk. The White House has prepared for
months to ensure that the dozens of events come off without a gaffe, a hitch
or a flub. But even years of planning could not make such events fail-safe.
The world is in far too much turmoil, with widespread concern
about the economic collapse, unruly voting publics and continued regional
instabilities, which are sure to burst into public view. At the same time,
Obama’s central policy proposals, which include a significant expansion of
the military effort in Afghanistan and major new deficit spending by wealthy
countries, have encountered resistance from his counterparts around the world. Here is a look at
four of the biggest challenges facing Obama as he heads overseas on his
first major foreign trip, and how he plans to handle them.

Stimulus Spending

As an economic theory, the concept is widely accepted: When consumer and
corporate spending collapses, government should increase its spending to prevent
a downward economic spiral. The real controversy comes with the next
questions: Which government and by how much Economists at the International
Monetary Fund have recommended globally coordinated stimulus spending of
about 2% of GDP to counteract the recession. But so far, that
challenge has only been accepted to varying degrees. As a group European
countries, as well as other members of the G-20 like France and Germany, have proposed lower rates of stimulus spending, both this year and next, raising concerns at the White

In recent weeks, Obama and his advisers have made clear that
much of the rest of the world will have to step up to the plate, especially in
2010, if the economic downturn continues. “We don’t want a situation in
which some countries are making extraordinary efforts and other countries
aren’t, with the hope that somehow the countries that are making those
important steps lift everybody up,” Obama said last week, in a prime time
press conference. But so far, European leaders have been resistant to the
call for more stimulus. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said she does
not want to be bogged down by “artificial discussions” of fiscal stimulus, and like many of her peers would prefer to focus on fashioning a new regulatory structure to make sure such excesses and abuses don’t threaten the global financial system again. Other European leaders have also voiced skepticism of new discretionary spending plans, arguing in part that the social safety net in Europe will
automatically increase spending to handle much of the downturn.

Rather than confront this conflict head on, both the Obama Administration
and European leaders have agreed to effectively dodge the issue for now, by
adopting language, in a draft comminique, that pledges all the nations to do
“whatever action is necessary until growth is restored.” At the same time,
White House aides have been arguing in recent weeks that the glass is half
full, and that the real test will only come if a second round of stimulus
efforts in needed. “There’s been an unprecedented coming together around
stimulating the global economy,” says Michael Froman, one of Obama’s top
international economic advisers. In other words, the battle over the size of
economic stimulus will be mostly fought later, when economists have a better
handle on the state of the economy and how much additional stimulus is needed.

Help for the Afghanistan Surge

Obama’s new plan for winning the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is sweeping
and resource-intensive, and it cannot be accomplished by the U.S. alone. “As
America does more, we will ask others to join us in doing their part,” Obama
announced last week. “From our partners and NATO allies, we will seek not
simply troops, but rather clearly defined capabilities: supporting the
Afghan elections, training Afghan security forces, a greater civilian
commitment to the Afghan people.”

The details of the commitments sought by Obama have not yet been
announced publicly, though Obama’s team has been working closely with many
allies, both in Europe and beyond, to request specific aid. “We are making
very specific asks,” said Michelle Flournoy, an undersecretary of defense
for policy, who has been working on the Afghanistan plan. Obama plans to make a public pitch for international aid both at the NATO Summit in Strasbourg on Friday and at the European Union summit in Prague on Saturday.

Perhaps to head off any potential confrontations, however, the White House
has not said that it expects any firm commitments in the coming week. On
Saturday, Denis McDonough, one of Obama’s national security advisers,
acknowledged the issue directly. “The challenge that we face is working
closely with our friends and allies to underscore where we think we have
shared challenges and where we address shared threats,” he said. “And so
that’s obviously going to be an issue we discuss with our NATO allies.”

Getting the Small Things Right

Sometimes in diplomacy, the small things matter the most. In early March,
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handed her Russian counterpart a “reset”
button intended to symbolize the American desire to “reset our relationship.” Russian
foreign minister Sergei Lavrov looked at the gift and smiled. “You got it
wrong,” he said, in perfect English. The button was printed with the word
“peregruzka,” which actually means overcharge or overload. Oops. Just days
earlier, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had visited the White House
bearing rarified gifts: a first edition biography of Winston Churchill and a
pen holder carved from the timbers of the HMS Gannet. Obama responded by
giving Brown a set of Hollywood movie DVDs, sparking outrage in the British
press, who took the mass-produced gift as evidence that Obama “dislikes

Two times is a coincidence, but three times makes a trend, so Obama will have
to be careful about his gift giving in Europe. On Saturday, White House
spokesman Robert Gibbs declined a British reporter’s request to disclose the
gift the President will give Queen Elizabeth II. “We don’t want to give away all of our
good news,” said Gibbs, raising the stakes even higher. Indeed gifts are not
the only petty detail that can soil an international relationship. The
British press has also harped on the fact that Obama once referred to the
“special partnership” between Britain and the U.S., instead of the
traditional evocation of the “special relationship.” Such granular details
manage to exhaust some on Obama’s staff. “I continue to by mystified
about the difference between the two words,” says Gibbs.

The Star Factor

At the moment, the world is roiled, leaders are nervous, and everyone wants
a piece of the media magnet that is Barack Obama. That means the White House
is expecting all kinds of potential posturing in and around the meetings
with Obama for domestic consumption in various nations. Will Russian leader
Dmitry Medvedev use the meeting to highlight the American role in the
financial collapse Will Chinese President Hu Jintao bring up the proposal
for a new international currency to supplant the U.S. dollar Will Mirek
Topolanek, the recently displaced prime minister of the Czech Republic,
renew his rhetoric about the “road to hell” that Obama’s economic policies
present, when they meet in Prague

Several European leaders who will host Obama are likely to use
their meetings with the U.S. President to smooth the political waters at
home. In Britain, amid rising unemployment, Prime Minister Gordon Brown faces daunting approval
ratings and new elections in just over a year. In
Germany, Angela Merkel’s governing coalition is coming under increasing
strain, with elections just six months away. And then there are the street
protesters who will be vying for the spotlight. Large protests — against
everything from capitalism to the structure of bank bailouts — are planned
both for London and Strasbourg.

Though Obama can’t control all the people who will be riding his
public profile, his team has planned a series of events where the President
can deliver his own message directly to the world public. In
Strasbourg on Friday, he will host a town hall “taking some questions from
students from throughout Europe and discussing the transatlantic alliance,”
according to an aide. Then again in Turkey, Obama will host a “new media”
roundtable discussion with young people from Europe and southeast Asia. The
hope in the Administration is that despite the various distractions, Obama
will be able to maintain message control, something he showed a talent for
during the recently concluded Presidential campaign.

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