Even if he had disembarked from a double-decker bus for the Group of 20 summit in London last week, President Barack Obama would have entranced Europe. As it was, when he emerged from his $300,000 armored limousine dubbed, not unlovingly, the "Beast," the whole world's eyes were on him. No one would argue the mood was anything like when candidate Obama greeted 200,000 jubilant Berliners last July. Even so, the president's debut on the world stage was met with as much warmth as fascination with what his moves (not to mention Michelle's) would be.
Of course, not even a red-carpet rollout could help Obama stay in charge of the agenda. The end of his trip was overshadowed by North Korea's missile launch—unsuccessful in its goal of reaching orbit, but successful in distracting and dividing the United Nations Security Council. But for much of the trip, global cooperation on the fiscal crisis and on his new strategy in Afghanistan, two of the administration's top priorities, dominated the spotlight.
To whip up that cooperation, Obama's steps were carefully choreographed: the flash of his entrance, the elegance of the first lady (J. Crew clad and capable of charming even Queen Elizabeth into an unusually touchy-feely moment), and, as always, the loftiness of Obama's rhetoric. "Today, we have learned the lessons of history," he intoned Thursday after the G-20 conference. The parade of bilateral talks with leaders of countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and India went largely according to script.
But that's not to say that the trip overseas didn't bring surprises. For one thing, the normally glum British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was simply beaming as he stood with Obama at their joint press conference. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pledged to cooperate with Obama on reducing nuclear arsenals and on containing Iran's nuclear ambitions. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had threatened to storm out of the G-20 summit if his demands weren't met, was won over by the compromise accord that included both $1.1 trillion to strengthen the world economy and greater regulatory oversight.
Europe, with its large but flagging economies, approached the gathering with some ambivalence. "Between Europeans and Obama, the love is one-sided," wrote the French newspaper Le Monde. "Generally, we like America," one columnist wrote to Obama in London's Daily Telegraph. "But you don't like Britain much. It's OK, we know, you don't have to pretend." European anxieties may have been stoked by the expansion of the old-money G-8 club to include large developing nations like China and India. And those concerns were heightened further when Obama reiterated U.S. support for Turkey's bid to join the European Union, a comment that Sarkozy and Germany's Angela Merkel quickly rebuffed. "I have been working hand in hand with President Obama, but when it comes to the European Union, it's up to member states of the European Union to decide," Sarkozy said.
Economists were mixed in their assessments of the prospective impact of the G-20 summit accord, but generally gave good marks to the key elements, among them a financial boost for the International Monetary Fund to help poorer countries, $250 billion to assist trade financing, and promises to resist protectionism. The accord didn't extend to an Obama-favored stimulus increase in direct government spending and tax cuts; France and Germany said enough of that is already being done.
But the world's most important economic summit in decades was only the beginning for Obama's whirlwind tour. On Friday, he arrived in France for the 60th-anniversary NATO summit, where he received verbal endorsements and 3,000 temporary extra troops for America's new plan in Afghanistan—not quite a game-changing commitment. At the European Union summit in Prague, just hours after Pyongyang launched its rocket to international condemnation, Obama outlined his vision for a world without nuclear weapons.
Today, in Turkey, he is seeking to underscore the closeness of the transatlantic relationship—calling Turkey a "critical ally," "true partner" and "important part of Europe"—and declaring that "the United States is not at war with Islam." Not everything has gone entirely as expected for the new president. But from London to Ankara, one thing has remained the same—the world has been watching him.