WASHINGTON – U.S. President Barack Obama makes a second foray into European diplomacy this week facing pressure to demonstrate his consensus-building foreign policy can produce results where his predecessor George W. Bush's go-it-alone style failed.
Obama travels to Germany and France after his speech to the Islamic world in Cairo on Thursday. The visit will be steeped in World War Two imagery, with stops at the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany and the allied invasion beaches in Normandy to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day.
Obama has a personal interest in both sites. His great uncle helped liberate one of the Buchenwald subcamps, and the grandfather who helped raise him entered France through Normandy after D-Day as part of General George Patton's army.
The U.S. leader will meet separately with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy for talks that will touch on the global economic crisis, Iran's nuclear program, the Afghan conflict and Western ties with Russia.
Analysts say while the visits to France and Germany are largely symbolic, Obama must begin to show his consultative foreign policy can produce a more unified approach to the shared problems facing the transatlantic allies.
When he ran for president last year, Obama argued Bush's diplomacy had alienated U.S. friends abroad and promised to deliver international backing for U.S. initiatives by listening to allies rather than dictating to them.
The results so far are inconclusive.
At his first round of high-stakes summitry in April, Obama had two big aims -- persuade the Europeans to further stimulate their economies to help end the global recession, and win additional support for the conflict in Afghanistan.
After a series of summits in April, the new U.S. president claimed victory but mainly because he had reduced expectations so low that he didn't have to press the Europeans for more than what they wanted to give.
I thought that the April trip went very well in that the Obama administration made a deliberate decision to lower its expectations and to build a strong relationship with Europe, even if that meant not getting everything he wanted on stimulus or on troops for Afghanistan, said Charles Kupchan, a Europe expert at the liberal Council on Foreign Relations.
In that sense, the April trip was an investment in the future, he said. I think that now Obama needs to begin to show that his new brand of leadership, his emphasis on consensus-building, yields payoffs.
APRIL SUMMIT FAILINGS
Others were not so charitable about the president's debut on the European stage.
I think you have to look at it through two prisms, said Sally McNamara, a Europe analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. Was he popular? Was he greeted by the peoples of Europe? ... Absolutely. The guy was a rock star.
In policy terms it was an absolute disaster. He didn't get anything he wanted, she added. If he genuinely wanted extra stimulus spending, if he genuinely wanted extra troops in Afghanistan he completely failed, massively failed.
George Friedman, chief executive of the strategic intelligence firm Stratfor, said: Essentially Obama went there, had a very bad visit, put the best gloss on it that he could possibly put because he didn't want to return home in exactly the same position Bush was with the Europeans.
That raises pressure for signs of progress on this visit.
It would be a feather in his cap if he can get some kind of concrete take-away from Merkel and Sarkozy, Kupchan said.
A willingness to accept more detainees from Guantanamo would be a positive sign, he said. So would a new economic initiative or a greater role in Afghanistan, either by adding more troops or expanding the mission of those already there.
The bottom line, Kupchan said, is that over the course of 2009, Obama needs to turn popularity into deliverables.
Friedman said Obama's emphasis would likely be on formulating a coordinated Western approach toward Russia ahead of his July meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
Germany, because of its proximity to Russia and its dependence on Moscow for energy, is wary of aggravating Russia over NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia or establishing a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, initiatives Washington has advanced, he said.
What he really doesn't want is to see the Russians peeling the Europeans and the Americans apart, Friedman said. He would very much like to go to Moscow with some sort of consensus about what is the Western position, what is NATO's position going to be on Russia.
But others say Obama is still building relations with Sarkozy and Merkel, and it will be months before Washington knows if the effort will produce better coordination on issues like Iran's nuclear program or the Afghan-Pakistan conflict.