Obama Aims To Change World Perceptions Of U.S. Since taking office, President Obama has attempted to present a more conciliatory, multilateral approach to foreign policy. But, as one analyst puts it, the "hard stuff is still to come," such as how Obama handles Iraq and Afghanistan, or another terrorist attack.

Obama Aims To Change World Perceptions Of U.S.

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/103542989/103559305" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

When President Obama took office, he vowed to reverse some of the Bush administration's most controversial policies. He also pledged to heal rifts with foreign governments. All this week, we're looking at the benchmarks Mr. Obama set for himself.

Today, NPR's Jackie Northam examines the steps he's taken in his first 100 days to improve America's image abroad.

JACKIE NORTHAM: From the very first hours in office, Mr. Obama started putting his mark on U.S. foreign policy. While trying to grapple with a global economic meltdown, the new president initiated immediate reviews of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq policy. He tried to open dialogues with previous enemy states such as Cuba and Iran. He reached out to Europe and sought to thaw U.S.-Russia relations. Overall, presenting a more conciliatory, multilateral approach to foreign policy.

President Obama understood that the more contentious policies introduced by the Bush administration had created a breach between the U.S. and the rest of the world, says Les Gelb with the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the book, "Power Rules."

Mr. LES GELB (Council on Foreign Relations): He made his first priority dissipating anti-Americanism around the world. He wanted to show people that we weren't out of touch, we understood their problems, and we weren't going to behave like a nutty, dictating superpower. And he made a conscious effort, wherever he went, to send that message.

NORTHAM: President Obama's first foreign policy initiative was ordering the closing of the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. Scott Silliman, a Duke University law professor, said that sent a potent signal that things were going to be different.

Professor SCOTT SILLIMAN (Law, Duke University): I think it's enormously important. Guantanamo Bay came to represent everything that the United States was doing wrong in the war against terror. There was no ally, going all the way back to 9/11, that really supported what we were doing at Guantanamo Bay.

NORTHAM: Obama also outlawed torture, prohibited the CIA from holding detainees in secret prisons, and said all detainees must be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.

Vince Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said these were good, initial moves by Mr. Obama.

Mr. VINCE WARREN (Executive Director, Center for Constitutional Rights): However, there were a range of Bush administration policies that not only have not changed, but the Obama administration has adopted them apparently wholeheartedly, which is deeply troubling.

NORTHAM: Among them, Warren says, the Obama administration has fought to retain the state secrets privilege that was used broadly during the Bush administration, and has appealed a federal court ruling allowing detainees held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to challenge their incarceration in federal court, much like the Guantanamo detainees have been allowed.

On many other issues, President Obama is holding off on making important decisions until he's heard results of wide-ranging reviews that he ordered. Analysts say his pragmatic approach extends to the world of foreign relations. Shortly after taking office, Mr. Obama dispatched envoys on listening tours to places like the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And he was careful not to make demands on leaders during his own, recent, overseas tours.

Josef Joffe, a senior fellow at Stanford University and the editor of the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, says Obama has come across on the world stage as too nice.

Mr. JOSEF JOFFE (Senior Fellow, Stanford University): If you want to be Mr. Big, if you're the biggest kid in the block, every once in a while you have to be not only nice, but you also have to kind of put your foot down to establish a reputation for power and deterrence. And so far, Obama hasn't done that.

NORTHAM: Joffe says President Obama has to be careful of not being seen as weak.

Les Gelb, with the Council on Foreign Relations, dismisses that notion, saying all the president has done is open the door to negotiations. He hasn't given away a thing.

Mr. GELB: I think showing a willingness to compromise creates a good atmosphere, more receptivity for the later application of real American power, which is carrots and sticks.

NORTHAM: Gelb says 100 days is not enough time to measure President Obama's performance in foreign affairs because the hard stuff is still to come: how he'll handle the withdrawal from Iraq, what happens in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or if there's another terror attack.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: There's a scorecard on how the president has done so far in advancing his agenda, at npr.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.