The President’s first trip overseas is drawing to a close with his visit to Turkey today. It is difficult to over-state the differences between Mr. Obama’s place on the world stage and that of his predecessor, although partisans on both sides will do their best to achieve precisely that, an overstatement of the difference.
Liberals are enamored of something called "world opinion." President Obama refers to this more than I think he should. It is not just that the notion is fuzzy, it is also at times wrong-headed and misunderstands the role of political leadership. I recall in the 1970s and 1980s, when the United Nations General Assembly would routinely pass resolutions condemning Israel and praising the PLO which was still very much a terrorist organization. The frightening thing about Russia today is not that Vladimir Putin has manipulated the electorate to guarantee his hold on power, it is that Putin and his buddies could win a free election in Russia today.
That said, it is nice to see large crowds in Western Europe gathered to greet, rather than to protest, the arrival of a U.S. President. At the very least, it has removed from the likes of Sarkoszy and Merkel the ability to score a cheap victory with their home crowds by insulting the President of the United States the way a derogatory remark about George W. Bush was always guaranteed to do. Certainly the Czech Prime Minister, who had such harsh words for Obama’s economic policies last week, had to question his stance when he saw the crowds in Prague cheering Mr. Obama.
The biggest difference, however, is that President Obama, while not compromising American interests one iota, understands that allies should be treated with respect and that friendships require nurturing. President Bush seemed to presume hostility to "old Europe" and his GOP allies would routinely and unnecessarily provoke ill will, often in the silliest ways. Remember "freedom fries?" Nor was it merely atmospherics. Bush’s policies, especially his push for deregulated economic structures and his prosecution of the war in Iraq, earned him the hostility of our longtime allies. The economic meltdown has taken care of the hubris of the laissez-faire crowd, and Mr. Obama’s pledge to wind down the Iraq War has earned him kudos abroad.
The test, now, is whether the administration can turn the kudos and the crowds into support for a robust, if less bellicose, foreign policy both abroad and at home.