President Obama's First Year: 'U.S. Foreign Policy Under New Management'

Has the president improved the U.S. image abroad during his first year?

Jan. 26, 2010 -- President Obama traveled to 21 foreign countries in his first year in office, and from his initial trip to Europe in April to his quick December jaunt to Copenhagen for climate change talks, the president's message was clear: There is a new sheriff in town.

Obama campaigned for the White House against the foreign policy decisions of the Bush Administration, most notably the war in Iraq, which he declared in 2002 a "dumb war."

Obama sought to change course almost immediately after taking office. Within days, he ordered the closing of the U.S. military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay within a year and set up a comprehensive review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan.

When he assumed the presidency, Obama also went to work to differentiate himself from Bush and speak in a different tone.

James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said year one of Obama's foreign policy was "the year of the word" and the overarching goal was to put up a sign that read, "U.S. Foreign Policy Under New Management."

"It was partly about repositioning the United States and reversing a very real, very tangible decline in America's image abroad and it had real political consequences," he said. "Many of the people we're trying to work with are from democracies and they have to respond to public opinion, their constituents and they had to respond to what the United States was doing."

Obama kicked off the effort on his first trip to Europe in April, which his critics derided as an "apology tour."

At a town hall-style meeting in Strasbourg, the president declared a "new era of responsibility" that world citizens "should all be proud of."

"I've come to Europe this week to renew our partnership, one in which America listens and learns from our friends and allies," he said April 3.

The president started off his first foreign trip in London at an economic summit with key world leaders. But he later spent considerable time laying the groundwork to re-establish relationships that were bruised during the Bush Administration.

"There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive," he said in apologizing to Europe.

He sought to repair tense ties with Russia: "The relationship between our two countries has been allowed to drift."

And he admitted things had not been so great with Turkey: "The trust that binds the United States and Turkey has been strained."

If there were any doubts about what the Obama White House was seeking to do on the world stage, the president made it clear.

Obama Was Clear to the World

"I would like to think that with my election and the early decisions that we've made, that you're starting to see some restoration of America's standing in the world," he said in London. "And although, as you know, I always mistrust polls, international polls seem to indicate that you're seeing people more hopeful about America's leadership."

Obama said he hoped that his administration's actions in its first few months "set a tone, internationally, where people … give us the benefit of the doubt.

"At least we can start with the notion that we're prepared to listen and to work cooperatively with countries around the world."

Obama's tone was in stark contrast to his predecessor.

"America is a critical actor and leader on the world stage, and that we shouldn't be embarrassed about that, but that we exercise our leadership best when we are listening," he said. "When we recognize that the world is a complicated place and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries; when we lead by example; when we show some element of humility and recognize that we may not always have the best answer, but we can always encourage the best answer and support the best answer."

That tone and rhetoric continued as the president hop-scotched around the globe in the next several months.

One key moment was Obama's speech in Cairo, which fulfilled a campaign promise that he speak in a Muslim capital in his first year in office.

Speaking to an audience of roughly 3,000 people at the University of Cairo, Obama called for "a new beginning" between the United States and Muslims across the globe in a highly anticipated speech, arguing that to move forward both sides need to hold a frank discussion about the causes of recent -- and not so recent -- tensions.

"I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition," Obama said. "Instead, they overlap and share common principles; principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

Obama dispatched his top diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, around the world to extend his message of cooperation and to tackle challenges to global security such as budding nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea.

In her first meeting with her Russia counterpart, Clinton pledged to "reset" relations with the old Cold War foe, comments that came months after the two countries butted heads over two breakaway regions in the country of Georgia on Russia's border.

In China, Clinton spoke about cooperation with the emerging superpower. Both trips, however, were not without mistakes. On the way to China, to the disappointment of advocacy groups, Clinton told reporters on her plane that the United States would not let Beijing's human rights record interfere in the two countries' relations.

During the meeting with the Russians, Clinton presented her counterpart with a "reset" button, written in Russian. But the word was mistranslated as "overcharge."

Clinton was well received in many stops from Indonesia to Ireland as the Obama administration's message of change and hope combined with her own star power to overcome opposition to U.S. policy that existed during the Bush administration.

Did Obama's Rhetoric Produce Tangible Results?

But she was met with some resistance at many stops. During a trip to Pakistan, skeptical audiences blasted U.S. policy there that, under the Obama administration, has included an increased reliance on drone attacks on suspected militant sites inside Pakistan.

In India, Clinton was publicly rebuffed by officials when she asked for cooperation on climate change ahead of December's climate change summit in Copenhagen, an effort that itself fizzled in the end.

Obama's rhetoric evolved during the course of the year. He dropped the supplicating tone while speaking abroad, not beseeching foreign audiences to like America again. And he spoke less about turning the page from the Bush Administration.

So, as the president seeks to increase goodwill toward America and create new and stronger partnerships, the key question is what did he actually accomplish?

Not much, said the Council on Foreign Relations' Lindsay.

"While engagement has garnered a lot of applause -- it won him a Nobel Peace Prize -- it has not led to any breakthroughs on the tough issues he had inherited coming into office," Lindsay said.

On issues such as Guantanamo and Afghanistan, Obama has faced many of the same obstacles as his predecessor. Despite its rhetoric and overtures, the Obama administration has found it difficult to convince countries to take in Guantanamo detainees cleared for release. Today's deadline for closing the facility will be missed.

Likewise, in Afghanistan, Obama's requests for additional troops from other countries has been met with much of the same skepticism and reluctance that greeted Bush when he met with allies.

Despite the effort to "reset" relations with Russia, the two countries missed a Dec. 5 deadline to renegotiate a key nuclear arms reduction agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters this week that talks would resume in February.

On the eve of the administration's one year anniversary, scholars at the Brookings Institution think-tank gave Obama an A- grade in leadership in facing transnational threats in the past year, in part citing his efforts to make up for lost time under the Bush administration.

But Lindsay said that in the view of the Obama administration, engagement with allies is "not a magic bullet" but if it doesn't produce results, the United States will be stronger because allies will be more willing to lend support.

"The United States was going to move diplomacy back to the forefront of American foreign policy," he said.

To the Obama administration, "speaking to our adversaries is not a sign of weakness but a way to accomplish tangible American foreign policy interests."

Domestic Issues Overtake Foreign Policy Agenda in Election Year

If year one was "The Year of the Word," year two will be about results, Lindsay said.

"You can only talk about what you plan to do for so long and then you have to talk about what you're going to deliver," he said.

The challenge for the White House will be how to move forward on critical foreign policy issues such as the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, disarmament talks with Russia and continuing to fight two wars, when the focus at home will be so heavily centered on domestic policy.

Legislation is always a challenge in an election year. With 10 months until the mid-term elections, the president has acknowledged that voters are upset.

"People are angry and they are frustrated," Obama told ABC News last week. "Not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years."

The president will have a full plate with just his domestic agenda -- job creation, health care overhaul and energy legislation -- and experts say that that will put foreign policy on the backburner.

Foreign policy progress "seldom provides big sustained political benefits for a president," Lindsay said. "It takes a lot of time and is not likely to move voters to go and vote."