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Obama and the rest of the world

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

Long before Americans went to the polls, the world had already chosen Barack Obama as the next president of the United States.

A German Obama supporter holds up a sign saying (in German) Obama for Chancellor, 4 November 2008
Expectations in Europe are sky-high

The crowd of 200,000 excited Germans that cheered him in Berlin, in July, was a far cry from the protesters that often greeted President George W Bush on his foreign trips.

It was also an unprecedented welcome for an unelected American politician.

On the next stop of his world tour, Mr Obama held a press conference with the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, who came very close to a public endorsement.

Mr Sarkozy referred to a meeting he had had with the Illinois Senator two years earlier, when he was still France's interior minister rather than head of state. "One of us became president, and now the other just has to do the same," he said.

Tattered image

So, now that Mr Obama has "done the same", what can Europe expect?

The rift caused by the Iraq war has been slowly mending over the last two years. President Bush's approach and tone changed in his second term, and the departure of France's Jacques Chirac and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder, who had led the charge against the war in Iraq, also helped turn a new page in transatlantic ties.

But America's image in Europe is still in tatters and this is where the mere election of Obama may already bring change.

If you look at the policies over the last year and a half it's pretty much the same agenda that a President Obama would have embraced
David Ignatius
Washington Post columnist

"Even though elites in Europe have reciprocated Bush's peace offering, the public has not," said Charles Kupchan, an expert on transatlantic ties from the Council on Foreign Relations.

"If you look at public opinion polls, anti-Americanism runs strong, disaffection with US foreign policy runs strong. I think that with Obama's election there is a real possibility of trying to reclaim public support for the Atlantic link, particularly among younger Europeans."

Many experts take the view that little will change in the substance of ties with Europe during an Obama presidency; the main difference will be in the tone and the approach.

"I think the message matters a lot, [but] we have a new messenger and I wouldn't discount the importance of that in itself," said Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.

"It's part of what stymied George Bush even as he began adopting policies that were more moderate. If you look at the policies over the last year and a half it's pretty much the same agenda that a President Obama would have embraced, but because the message was coming from George Bush the world just didn't listen to it, they just tuned out."

Willing to listen

There will be big departures from Bush policy, including plans to close the controversial detention centre in Guantanamo Bay.

But there will be continuity as well. Barack Obama has said he will not allow a nuclear Iran, that he would be prepared to bomb Pakistan if Islamabad doesn't go after al-Qaeda militants itself, and that he will be a friend to Israel.

But the world may be more willing to listen.

Mr Obama's Berlin speech was cheered loudly, but when he talked about Europe helping out America in Afghanistan, the applause was tepid.

He will make that plea again, once in the White House, but he will think hard about what he asks for.

"I think that there will be a dialogue in advance to make sure that the requests are ones that the EU can at least go partway to fulfil," said Mr Kupchan.

Barack Obama speaks in front of a 200,000 strong crowd in Berlin, 24 July 2008
A 200,000 strong crowd greeted Mr Obama in Berlin in July

"Instead of asking only for combat troops, [he will ask] for things that the Europeans will find it easier to deliver on, such as police, civil reconstructions teams, economic assistance, advising the Afghans on how to deal with rule of law issues, these are the things that the EU has a lot experience on and these will be less controversial in terms of domestic support for the war."

So how much will actually change under Mr Obama?

He ended his Berlin speech by talking about "remaking the world".

At rallies across the US, he told thousands of excited supporters that "together, we will change this country, we will change the world".

He raised expectations and inspired millions not only in his own country but also around the world.

But Mr Obama's ambitions may be curtailed by the financial troubles at home. The economy will be a top priority for his administration, and there may be less money to spend abroad on aid.

The campaign's idealism may also be diluted by pragmatism once the Obama team holds the reins of power.

"There are going to be these little battles that will break out among his advisors about what the character and conduct of the policy choices are," warned Steven Clemons, from the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank.

"You are going to see battles between labour and free traders, between... the liberal neo-conservatives and those who want to be more realistic and more cautious and step back."

In a way, added Mr Clemons, the divisions and tensions will be similar to those that pitted Bush's advisors against each other while we wait to "see what Barack Obama really thinks because the choices aren't always clear."

Perennial foe

Around the world, Mr Obama's election elicited a rare wave of optimism.

In Kenya, where the Illinois senator's father was born, villagers celebrated his election as their own.

From the town of Obama in Japan, to the streets of Spain, everybody wanted to claim a piece of the victory that has restored faith in the leadership of the United States.

Even America's perennial foe, Iran, took the unusual step of sending a congratulatory message to the President-elect.

He greeted it with caution, but his victory will certainly require America's enemies to reassess their strategies now that the man they loved to hate is about to leave the White House.

"It forces everybody to look at the league tables and figure out what's my strategy," said Mr Ignatius from the Washington Post.

"The [Iranian] supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei may have been content with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the president of Iran to confront a George Bush America but is Ahmadinejad, this incendiary character, the right person to challenge this Barack Obama America? Probably not."

Al-Qaeda's top leaders have been silent so far, though some expect them to claim Mr Obama's election as their victory, and a defeat of President Bush's policies.

But they too may have to rethink how they deal with the Great Satan, if global goodwill persists.



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