Obama Works to Repair America's Image in the World

Smiles and handshakes are a start, but Obama's real challenge will be to show results.

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The few "Yankee Go Home" signs that greet him abroad seem almost an afterthought, and when he enters a room of world leaders, he is the most sought-after man for a photo op and a handshake. Such is the star power that has swirled around Barack Obama on his initial foreign travels as the U.S. president.

This comes as little surprise, yet it will present a challenge of sorts for the president. Obama's relative youth and vigor, his calls for reaching out to adversaries and friends overseas, his breaks from past policy, and his triumphant personal story as the nation's first African-American president all seem to make the 47-year-old leader the best single antidote to anti-Americanism in years, maybe decades. White House officials say Obama's appeal extends beyond just the leaders of the world. "What has happened is that anti-Americanism isn't cool anymore," says top Obama adviser David Axelrod.

But this initial repositioning of the American leadership brand onto more popular terrain internationally will be the easier part of Obama's task. For all the sense of fresh starts and of goodwill, the seeds of perhaps inevitable disappointments are present as well. Visiting the Czech Republic in April, Obama got a friendly warning from Vaclav Havel, the once dissident playwright and former president who led his country's Velvet Revolution. Havel cautioned that the accumulation of exaggerated expectations could turn against the new American leader. "People may end up thinking that he has betrayed them, that he has raised their hopes too far," Havel said. A smiling Obama is said to have replied that he is aware of the danger.

Image repair. Still, Obama has deftly gone about trying to reset the global image of America. The guiding impulse seems to be to start reviving U.S. standing in the world quickly in the hope that policy gains will accrue later. He has ordered the future closure of the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, barred torture of terrorist suspects, and made public the Bush administration's internal memos authorizing harsh interrogation methods. He has put Washington back at the center of efforts to curb climate change and eliminate nuclear weapons over the long run. He has moved to repair relations with Moscow, and he has modestly eased the U.S. travel ban and embargo on Cuba. In the Mideast, Obama has set plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, relaunched U.S. mediation for Mideast peace, and approved talking directly with Syria and Iran.

In a sense, though, this has all been a warm-up. In the months ahead, he faces the challenge of both overcoming opposition to U.S. policies and netting meaningful results. He has inherited resentments that linger from the Bush years, grounded in an image of a go-it-alone superpower that too often brushed aside the opinions of others, resorted to military means, and neglected global problems like climate change and arms control. Further, Obama now represents a nation whose highflying style of capitalism is blamed for a financial and economic crisis that is impoverishing millions and halting gains in prosperity around the globe. "Obama has great personal popularity, but changing the image of the United States in some of the ways it's been unpopular may well be a long process," says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.

Opinion polls in recent years show most nations on balance viewing U.S. power negatively—and often by wide margins. Marco Vicenzino, director of the Global Strategy Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group, says, "Things are so low with the U.S. status overseas, there's nowhere to go but up." Nonetheless, he predicts, "you'll see Obama's star power begin to wane over time."

Although Obama is the new leading man on the global political stage, the stage itself is changing in ways that have diminished the margin of American pre-eminence. The economic downturn seems to be hastening the rise of newer powers like China, India, and Brazil. Beijing has questioned the wisdom of sticking so firmly with the U.S. dollar for its overseas investments. Russia has re-emerged as a demanding foreign-policy player. European allies have grown comfortable saying no to the Americans, as they did with U.S. calls for significantly more counterrecession spending and more soldiers to fight Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Latin America has become more standoffish toward Washington as U.S. influence has declined. North Korea and Iran appear inclined to press their nuclear defiance, regardless of who lives in the White House.