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Obama departs US for key Europe summits

President Barack Obama headed to Europe on Tuesday on the first overseas trip of his young presidency to hold crucial meetings on the economic crisis and with America’s military partners in NATO.

world Updated: Mar 31, 2009 20:23 IST

President Barack Obama headed to Europe on Tuesday on the first overseas trip of his young presidency to hold crucial meetings on the economic crisis and with America’s military partners in NATO.

Seldom has a US president faced such a stern first test overseas as the one awaiting Obama at Thursday’s Group of 20 economic crisis summit in London.

He is set to take a central role in global efforts to mitigate the crisis while easing hints of rifts between Europe and the United States on the best way forward in taming the raging world recession.

Then on Friday and Saturday he will attend the NATO summit marking his first test abroad as US commander in chief and his best chance to sell his new plan for the Afghan war to wary allies.

After just two months in the Oval Office, the new US president will likely try to leverage the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany, to build closer ties with US Atlantic defense allies.

“President Obama is not only confronting the biggest challenge he faces, he’s doing it for his first time on this type of world stage,” said Steven Schrage, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The trip also marks the much anticipated debut on the global stage of Obama’s dynamic wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, who also has a packed agenda of meetings and planned appearances.

The high wattage visit of the First Couple -- seen as the most anticipated by a US president and first lady since the “Camelot” days of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy -- will also go a long way toward repairing relations badly frayed during the former administration of George W. Bush, observers said.

Obama has spent the exhausting first two months of his presidency battling to ensure the worst economic slump in generations does not overwhelm the huge expectations and ambitious plans of his young presidency.

Now, he must take a central role in global efforts to mitigate the crisis while easing hints of rifts between Europe and the United States on the best way forward.

Obama has dismissed the growing conventional wisdom ahead of the London summit that the United States wants more stimulus and less regulation to tackle the crisis, and Europe wants less stimulus and more regulation.

“I can’t be clearer in saying there are not sides. This is a phony debate,” he said earlier this month.

But experts in transatlantic relations say that despite the desire of all the major developed and developing powers at the G20 to show a united front, differences of emphasis do exist.

“The Obama administration has been pushing Europeans to spend much more, but the Europeans are baulking at that,” said Kati Suominen, a Transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

“Particularly the bigger countries, France, Germany and the current holder of the European Union Presidency, Czech Republic, have been very adamantly opposed to new spending. So there is a little bit of a rift there.”

Obama administration officials say they have put in place a balanced and multi-pronged plan to fight the crisis, including a 787 billion dollar stimulus package and a bid to cleanse banks of toxic assets.

The president also has stressed the need to ensure that efforts to reignite the global economy do not descend into protectionism -- in part to ease foreign worries about a “Buy America” clause inserted by Congress into his stimulus plan, which the administration had to water down.

Meanwhile, Obama is also expected to press NATO allies for more troops and broader operating criteria for combat missions in Afghanistan.