It will be a series of firsts in Barack Obama's presidency. The first time he has journeyed to Europe as president. His initial summit with the Group of 20. His kickoff meeting with fellow NATO leaders. His first one-on-one with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. His first trip to a Muslim nation, Turkey. And while the agenda of the president's foreign trip next week calls for discussions on a wide range of issues, from combating terrorism to the war in Afghanistan, one issue stands out: the troubled financial system, both in the United States and around the globe.
"The only game is the economy," says Ken Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan. "He's got to help line up the rest of the world behind the policies he and the other leaders are formulating." On the personal side, Duberstein says, "he's also got to appear as the leader of the free and not-so-free world," the go-to guy in the international arena. Americans expect it, and most Europeans would probably welcome it.
"President Obama has been talking for many months, if not a year or more, about the need to restore U.S. leadership around the globe," says Reginald Dale, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "This trip is his first chance, actually, to start doing something about that—putting these promises into practice." The trip comes at a crucial time as Obama tries to maintain his popularity at home and win congressional approval for his controversial $3.6 trillion budget. In the most recent development at home, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said that he wants the government to partner with businesses in taking over "toxic" mortgage and car loans that currently can't be paid off. It remains to be seen whether the investment plan will lift the overall economy. But Obama strategists hope these and other actions will strengthen Obama's hand when he goes to Europe and asks other nations to take similar steps. His argument will be that the United States has led the way and that Europe should follow.
Some European leaders have different ideas. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the presidency of the European Union this year, told reporters Wednesday, "Americans will need liquidity to finance all their measures, and they will balance this with the sale of their bonds, but this will undermine the liquidity of the global financial market." Topolanek criticized the United States for allowing its budget deficit to swell and for adopting "buy American" policies. "All of these steps, these combinations and permanency, is the road to hell," he argued. Other European leaders were surprised at Topolanek's bluntness almost on the eve of Obama's visit, when the United States will be seeking cooperation.
In an op-ed essay that appeared in 31 newspapers around the world this week, Obama wrote, "The leaders of the G-20 have a responsibility to take bold, comprehensive, and coordinated action that not only jump-starts recovery but launches a new era of economic engagement to prevent a crisis like this from ever happening again." As Topolanek's comments illustrated, there are many obstacles to unity. One is resentment of the United States over the economic downturn. "A lot of countries blame the United States, hold us responsible for this economic situation," says a former senior U.S. official with extensive experience in dealing with Europe. "But they are still rooting for us to come out of it and get back on our feet because our economy is so thoroughly linked to theirs."
Obama visits London on April 1 for meetings with leaders of the G-20 and then moves on to Strasbourg, France, and nearby Kehl, Germany, the joint site for a NATO summit April 3-4. Next, he goes to the Czech Republic for meetings with European Union leaders. His last stops are in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey.
As at the G-20 meeting, the challenges will be severe at the NATO summit. The central question is a nettlesome one: determining NATO's place in the world and how it should evolve from its original purpose as a military deterrent to the former Soviet Union in the wake of World War II.
Jeffrey Mankoff, adjunct fellow for Russia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), told reporters this week that "looming in the background" will be a debate on Russia. Mankoff expects the leaders to postpone questions about enlarging NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine, both former Soviet satellite states.