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Obama finds success, and a reality check, on trans-Atlantic trip

A banner is held up in the crowd as President Barack Obama (left) delivers a public speech to thousands of people on Sunday on the Hradcanske Square in Prague, Czech Republic.

A banner is held up in the crowd as President Barack Obama (left) delivers a public speech to thousands of people on Sunday on the Hradcanske Square in Prague, Czech Republic.

ANKARA, Turkey – After three international summits and more than a dozen meetings with foreign leaders in the past five days, President Barack Obama learned the limits of diplomacy Sunday: He can’t control everything.

Obama had reason to be satisfied as he raced across Europe on his first trans-Atlantic trip. Summits in London and Strasbourg, France, met Obama’s modest goals for them, producing agreements on ways to stimulate the global economy, regulate financial markets and bolster the allied war effort in Afghanistan. The new president played a key role in the talks on each issue.

Then came 4:30 a.m. Sunday in Prague, hours before Obama was set to deliver a major speech on controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. Press secretary Robert Gibbs woke Obama with news that North Korea had test-launched a rocket into the Pacific Ocean. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, also on the trip, telephoned Asian allies, Obama urged the United Nations Security Council to act.

During a meeting with Polish leaders later in the day, Obama tried to assure them he would not pull the plug on plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as long as nuclear wannabe Iran remained a potential threat.

And so on a trip designed to promote peace and prosperity, Obama was reminded twice in 12 hours not only of the complexities of foreign policy, but also of how his plans can be complicated by those seeking to test his young administration.

“This provocation underscores the need for action,” Obama said of the North Korean launch before an estimated 20,000 people in Prague’s historic Hradcany Square. “Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something. The world must stand together to prevent the spread of these weapons.”

Today the president gets another reminder that the world can be a tough place to do business. Here in the capital of this Muslim nation, he will discuss the war in neighboring Iraq and Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors. On Tuesday, he’ll conduct a student roundtable in Istanbul to address the Muslim world’s ire against America, which seemed to heighten during the administration of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

It will be the latest in a series of tough topics Obama has taken on during his planned eight-day, five-nation trip. His willingness to discuss — and listen — to others on the recession, war, nuclear arms and terrorism has won him good marks from his foreign peers as well as crowds of Europeans who praised his energy, ambition and style.

“It was so easy to work with him,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was seen chatting and laughing with Obama frequently. “He showed his leadership. He showed how committed he was.”

Beyond meeting with world leaders, Obama has made a point of attending campaign-style gatherings with regular folks — reaching beyond the clubby confines of international diplomacy to speak directly with citizens of the world.

The president’s success has been partly a result of his setting limited expectations for the trip. If he had come to Europe hoping for major new government spending to spur economic growth or an infusion of other nations’ combat troops to join U.S. forces in Afghanistan, his trip likely would have been deemed a failure.

In London for an emergency meeting of the Group of 20 economic powers, Obama settled for $1.1 trillion in loans and trade financing rather than direct government spending. In Strasbourg for NATO’s 60th anniversary conference, he was satisfied to be promised about 5,000 mostly non-fighting forces for Afghanistan from other nations.

“America cannot meet our global challenges alone,” Obama said. Showing contrition seldom seen from Bush, he said, “The United States came here to listen, to learn and to lead.”

‘The wind at his back’

For the first six days of his trip, Obama has done plenty of all three. He’s listened to presidents and prime ministers, a chancellor, a king and Queen Elizabeth II, to whom he gave an iPod.

He’s learned the art of delicate diplomacy, twice helping to settle spats that threatened to sidetrack the G-20 and NATO meetings. And he’s led on issues ranging from the Afghanistan war to a major boost in borrowing authority for developing countries.

In Prague on Sunday, Obama sought to lead the world’s nine nuclear powers toward further arms reduction and non-proliferation. “The United States has a moral responsibility to act,” he said. “We will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.”

Obama has been greeted warmly in part because he follows Bush, whose war in Iraq and policies on treating terror suspects helped to chill relations with several foreign leaders. Obama also enjoys the celebrity status that comes from being the first U.S. president with a multiracial background.

“He had the wind at his back,” said Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former deputy secretary of State in the Clinton administration. “But he’s also had the wind at his face, because of the multitude and the magnitude of the problems he faces.”

The G-20 and NATO summits were the trip’s major obligations. Obama went further, however, by tackling other issues:

• His first meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London resulted in an agreement to reach a new arms control pact, as well as a planned July meeting in Moscow.

• His outreach to young people is intended to build support among those who Obama said are too often anti-American. “America is changing,” he said.

• His trip to Turkey is part of an effort to reach out to Muslims turned off by elements of the U.S. war on terrorism. A March poll by Istanbul-based Infacto Research Workshop showed Obama tops the list of popular foreign leaders — but that the U.S. tops the list of countries seen as the “enemy.”

“People are swept away by what is in fashion,” said Sevin Turan, a student at Bosphorus University in Turkey. “In 2005, the trend was to hate Bush. Today, Obama is more popular than Brad Pitt.”

Obama’s goal was to send Europeans “a very clear signal that a new wind is blowing from Washington,” said Karen Donfried, executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund, which promotes trans-Atlantic partnerships. “They now have an American president who speaks in a language that they like.”

Threading the needle

During the first half of his trip, Obama had a tricky needle to thread: asserting U.S. leadership on economic and defense issues while asking allies for their help.

“If there’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that’s an easier negotiation,” he quipped. “But that’s not the world we live in, and it shouldn’t be.”

Unable to get allies to spend more government money to stimulate their economies, Obama nonetheless won a $500 billion boost in lending authority for the International Monetary Fund. Together with other loans and trade financing, the summit coughed up $1.1 trillion.

“The U.S. really led on this issue,” said Brad Setser, a geo-economics expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Obama and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner “should be given credit for this.”

At the same time, the administration avoided what it didn’t want: a new global regulatory authority that had been sought by France and Germany. Obama helped defuse a dispute between France and China over the naming of countries that violate new rules on international tax havens, cornering both nations’ leaders to work out a compromise.

Similarly in Strasbourg, Obama used his powers of persuasion in two ways. He convinced NATO allies to support his new strategy in Afghanistan, which is focused on rooting al-Qaida from the Pakistan border and training Afghan forces to take over the fight. He again defused a spat — this one Turkey’s objection to the leading candidate for NATO secretary general, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

“Political interaction in Europe is not that different from the United States Senate,” said Obama, who spent four years in that body. “There’s a lot of … wheeling and dealing and, you know, people are pursuing their interests, and everybody has their own particular issues and their own particular politics.”

The wheeling and dealing kept Obama shuttling between France and Germany by helicopter past midnight Friday. Even so, he emerged the next day with only about 5,000 new NATO troops for Afghanistan, most of whom will serve just through the Aug. 20 elections or train Afghans to assume the fight.

The unexpected triumph may have come from the meeting between Obama, 47, and Medvedev, 43. Their predecessors, Bush and Vladimir Putin, had forged a close bond since 2001, when Bush said he had looked into Putin’s soul. But relations soured last year over U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Obama and Medvedev hit it off with talk of their families and love of the law. At the same time, they clearly stated their differences over U.S. missile defense in Europe and Russia’s war last year with Georgia. The meeting got a thumbs-up from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“The new atmosphere of mutual trust is an atmosphere which does not create the illusion of good relations because they develop well on a personal level, but which ensure taking into account mutual interests and readiness to listen to each other,” Lavrov said. “We missed this much in the past years.”

Between all the private meetings and summits, Obama wowed many leaders with small talk and charm. He discussed dinosaurs with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s kids. He joked with reporters from China and India at a standing-room-only London press conference that drew 800 journalists.

‘He’s a good character’

If the president impressed fellow leaders, he made an equally strong impression on average Europeans. His town-hall-style meeting in Strasbourg had the feel of an Iowa campaign event, replete with students taking cell phone photos. Many in Prague waved small American flags.

“He’s a good character. I like how he deals with people,” said Karam Ziyadeh, 16, a student from Heidelberg, Germany, who crossed the Rhine River to hear Obama on Friday.

Obama’s biggest applause lines in Strasbourg came when he mentioned his plans to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and reject torture as an intelligence-gathering tactic. But he also tried to woo students to support anti-terrorism efforts.

“Al-Qaida is still a threat,” he said. “We cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president, suddenly everything is going to be OK.”

In Prague, his talk was optimistic. Obama held out hope for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” though he acknowledged that may not happen in his lifetime.

Jammed against a fence halfway back in the crowd of 20,000, Paul Poidl voiced skepticism. A Czech resident who escaped from a communist regime in 1960 and returned in 1992, he called Obama “a dreamer.”

“It’s beautiful, what he’s saying,” Poidl said, but “don’t forget, on the other side of the table are gangsters. If you show just a little bit of weakness, they kill you.”

The effort to speak directly with Europeans was purposeful on Obama’s part. “Public diplomacy is at least as important as the concrete policy agenda,” says Charles Kupchan, professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a veteran of the Clinton administration. “The challenge of public outreach plays to one of Obama’s greatest strengths. He is, if nothing else, a superb communicator.”

That continues to work for him. “It’s not just that the American political message is now different, but Europeans — including the British — are desperate to like and be photographed with the new president,” says Tony Travers, a professor at the London School of Economics. “The queen looked happy, too.”

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