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Obama brings home a mixed bag from Europe

The president heard a lot of nice words from European leaders, but he got few solid commitments.

April 07, 2009

As President Obama toured Europe and Turkey in recent days, he dazzled leaders and audiences with his rhetorical gifts and began the long process of restoring the United States' badly damaged prestige. To Europeans still smarting from Bush administration ultimatums, Obama was conciliatory, even humble. "We exercise our leadership best when we are listening ... when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility," he said. To overcome a legacy of unilateralism, Obama stressed the need for "partnerships" at various multilateral venues -- a summit of G-20 economic leaders, a 60th-anniversary celebration of NATO and a meeting of European Union leaders. And yet he returns home with a mixed bag of results: applause and admiration but few commitments from allies wary of U.S. power and bluster.

The president accomplished less than he had hoped. The Group of 20 leaders agreed to funnel more money into the International Monetary Fund for struggling nations, but France and Germany resisted U.S. urging to increase domestic government spending in order to stimulate the economy. Supportive of U.S. efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, France nonetheless offered to take a grand total of one Algerian prisoner off Obama's hands.

The Europeans praised Obama's new military-civilian strategy for Afghanistan. Nice words. But although Europe has been the target of several attacks by Al Qaeda-linked groups, the allies still largely regard this as an American war. France ruled out sending combat troops, and Germany was noncommittal. NATO offered about 5,000 additional troops and $100 million to train the Afghan army, but not the combat force Obama had sought.

In another clash of oratory and reality, Obama's pledge in Prague to stop the spread of nuclear weapons ran smack into a North Korean long-range missile launch. Friendly talks with Chinese and Russian leaders did not persuade them to join in a strong condemnation of North Korea's reckless provocation.

Words matter, and the respect that Obama engendered on this trip is key to reclaiming U.S. global leadership. Obama even exercised that leadership when he gently scolded Europeans for espousing what he called casual but insidious anti-Americanism. He urged them to acknowledge "the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America." Obama's challenge is to transform that partnership into concrete support from the Europeans, who must rise to the occasion and no longer blame President Bush's unilateralism for their unwillingness to help.

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