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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Obama acknowledges a new era in which American clout needs to be wielded differently. The venue for that sentiment made it more telling—the economic crisis summit in London of the Group of 20 leading economies rather than the cozier, old-style Group of 7 or 8 world powers. "If there's just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that's an easier negotiation," Obama said. "But that's not the world we live in, and it shouldn't be the world that we live in."

A tone of humility has so far infused Obama's foreign-policy posture. His early themes—unveiled from Canada and France to Turkey and Mexico—have been partnership and engagement, rediscovered. To the dismay of conservative critics, he has conceded moments of American "arrogance." While touting America's diversity and warning against "insidious" anti-Americanism, he has also cited the country's "darker periods," including slavery and the onslaught against American Indian tribes. He has sounded notes of regret about Wall Street's excesses. In Mexico City, he admitted that American consumption of illicit drugs and sales of guns to traffickers are integral to the tragedy of Mexico's drug killings. At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he talked about his racial heritage to leaders from a region where persistent racial inequities are wedded to poverty. He told Latin leaders he wanted to do more listening than talking. And he strode across a room to shake hands with Hugo Chávez, the leftist Venezuelan leader renowned for his anti-U.S. diatribes.

"No-drama Obama." Domestic critics fault some of Obama's overtures, most pointedly his seemingly amicable encounter with Chávez, as naive and assert that he is undermining American authority abroad. But the president defends infusing diplomacy with his "no-drama Obama" governing style. He used a visit to Turkey as an opportunity to extend his outreach to the broader Muslim world. He argued that the U.S. relationship with the world's Muslims "cannot and will not be based upon opposition to terrorism," a complaint voiced bitterly in recent years. Instead, he said, it would be based on "mutual interest and mutual respect." But Obama, a Christian, went further, drawing on personal connections to Islam—a father of Muslim heritage and years as a child spent in a heavily Muslim nation, Indonesia. He was introduced to the Turkish Parliament with his full name, Barack Hussein Obama.

Turkey, a U.S. ally that is majority Muslim, has itself been swept up in the recent wave of anti-Americanism. The country remains both proud of its secular democracy and touchy over how it operates in practice, and Obama won good reviews there for threading his way through those sensitivities. Last year, a mere 12 percent of Turks regarded the United States favorably. But optimism about improved ties to a United States led by Obama has grown in Turkey and generally elsewhere. "He's showing people he understands their problems, their perspectives," says Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy. "The first step, properly, is to clear the air," says Gelb. "He has dissipated a lot of the anti-Americanism in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East."

To much of an intrigued global audience, Obama has shown a flair for refreshing candor—to the point of making some of his counterparts look a bit stodgy and faded. But it will take time for the results of his drive to reinvent America's image to become clear. That is when Obama's openness will be judged back home.