martedì 7 aprile 2009


And so it was that Barack Hussein Obama visited Europe. In London, he rescued the world economy. In Strasbourg, he healed the Nato alliance. In Prague, he rid the world of nuclear weapons. In Ankara, he reconciled Islam and the west. And on the seventh day, he got back on to Air Force One and disappeared into a cloudless sky.

Was it all a dream? I fear so.

On many levels, the new US president’s first tour of Europe was indeed a triumph. Mr Obama was articulate, ambitious and charming. His personal style has a touch of the emperor and a touch of the rock star – but with an appealing humility that is common to neither profession.

While his manner was relaxed, Mr Obama also consistently displayed an instinct for bold action that seems to be beyond the European leaders he mingled with. He wants to abolish nuclear weapons, shock the world economy back into recovery and redouble efforts to win the war in Afghanistan.

So Mr Obama scored very highly for style and ambition on his European tour. But can he deliver the substance? Here, the verdict has to be much more doubtful – for reasons that have more to do with the sheer difficulty of the situation he has inherited, rather than any particular failings on the part of the new president.

This gap between ambition and reality was apparent on each stage of Mr Obama’s European odyssey. The outcome of the G20 summit in London was greeted with a big jump in the markets. Everybody wants to believe that the world’s leaders, prodded by Mr Obama, can fix the global economy.

But the G20 communiqué deserves to be treated with considerable scepticism. It does little to address the underlying crisis in the banking system and the credit markets. And history suggests that the results of these large global summits are all too often ignored. The same leaders promised to shun protectionism at the first G20 summit in Washington last year. But since then, most of the countries involved have passed protectionist measures.

The grandiose promises to increase development aid that were made by the G8 three years ago have also been quietly reneged on. The communiqués produced by global summits have no legal force – and not much political clout either.

The results of the Nato summit in Strasbourg were also disappointing. The European members of the alliance cobbled together about 5,000 more troops for the Afghan war. But 3,000 of these will be sent only temporarily to provide security during the Afghan election, which will take place in August. The US, by contrast, is sending 21,000 more troops to take the fight to the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The result is that the war in Afghanistan will increasingly be led and fought by Americans.

Mr Obama was not inclined to stress this point, in his concluding remarks after the Strasbourg summit. As may be the case with the war in Afghanistan itself, the Obama strategy for Nato seems to be to declare victory and move on. But it is hard to argue that the western alliance is in better shape after this week’s summit meeting.

The president’s Prague speech revived the inspiring vision of a nuclear-free world. It took place against the background of the North Korean missile test – an event that simultaneously underlined and undermined the points that Mr Obama was trying to make.

On the one hand, the launching of a North Korean rocket was a neat illustration of the urgency of nuclear disarmament – a subject that has become unfashionable since the end of the cold war. On the other hand, the test demonstrated that there are important players in this drama that are impervious to the cool, rational and conciliatory style that Mr Obama has made his own.

The same problem came up on the Turkish leg of the tour. Ever since he won the election, Mr Obama has been contemplating making a big speech addressed to the Islamic world. His aides have been mulling how far he can, or should, go to apologise for past American actions in the Middle East – for example, the US role in the 1953 coup that deposed a democratically elected government in Iran.

In the event, Mr Obama’s speech to the Turkish parliament contained only a short, if eloquent, passage on Islam and the west. Most of his remarks were aimed directly at the Turks themselves, as the president attempted to shore up a key American alliance that is in very bad shape.

The speech seemed to go down well. But so much damage has been done by the Iraq war, the Bush years and Turkey’s souring relationship with the European Union, that Mr Obama faces a huge task. An opinion poll for the German Marshall Fund last year showed that just 8 per cent of Turks were in favour of American leadership in world affairs.

When Mr Obama won office, The Onion, a satirical magazine, greeted his victory with the headline “Black man given nation’s worst job”. Watching Mr Obama’s progress around Europe this week, this seemed a reasonable summary of the situation.

The new American president faces an economic disaster at home, a stalemated war in Afghanistan, unpredictable adversaries in places such as North Korea, and largely unhelpful allies in Europe. This week Mr Obama cemented the impression that he is an unusually gifted and intelligent politician. But that does not mean he will succeed. It could just be that he is the right man at the wrong time.

da Financial Time 9 aprile 2009