Heading Across the Atlantic Obama to Meet His Fans in Europe

Barack Obama, the man most Europeans would like to see elected the next US president, plans to visit Berlin, Paris and London soon. The Democratic candidate is looking for statesmanlike images to boost his campaign and German politicians will be hoping some of his popularity rubs off on them.

By in Palo Alto, California

Illinois Senator Barack Obama is expected to visit Europe sometime in July.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama is expected to visit Europe sometime in July.

What will the new US president mean for Europe? And above all, what will he want from Europe? A group of Europeans and Americans recently engaged in heated debate on the subject on the sidelines of a trans-Atlantic conference at California's Stanford University.

Charles Kupchan, the former top advisor to Bill Clinton and one of America's best experts on Europe, gave a less than euphoric assessment. What will happen, he asked his audience, if the popular Barack Obama comes to Europe as US President and demands much more help in Afghanistan or Iraq? How will the Europeans respond?

These difficult questions won't arise in earnest until next year at the earliest but German politicians will soon be able to meet Barack Obama in person. The Democratic contender made a surprise announcement at the weekend that he plans to visit Europe during the election campaign. In addition to Paris and London, he also intends to visit Berlin.

“France, Germany and the United Kingdom are key anchors of the trans-Atlantic alliance. And I look forward to discussing how we can strengthen our partnership in the years to come,” said Obama.

Battle Against Hillary Delayed Visit

Ever since the beginning of the presidential primaries there had been speculation that Obama would visit Europe before the election, but his months-long nomination battle against Hillary Clinton kept delaying his travel plans. "I think it might not happen anymore," one Obama advisor told SPIEGEL ONLINE just a few weeks ago. She had been asked a number of times to prepare a European trip but the plans kept getting shelved, partly because Obama's strategists regarded a visit to Iraq and Afghanistan as more important.

But now Obama will be visiting both regions. He will travel to Iraq and Afghanistan soon with a Congressional delegation. And he will combine his upcoming tour of Europe with a visit to Israel and Jordan.

Those latter two destinations are probably more important for his campaign than his brief stopovers in European capitals because Obama needs to overcome doubts among Jewish American voters about his commitment to the American-Israeli partnership. He also needs to signal his interest in the Middle East peace process.

But photos of him in Berlin, Paris and London could help his campaign too. The Senator from Illinois hardly knows Europe or its politicians. During the primaries his rival Hillary Clinton accused him of neglecting his duty as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on European Affairs.

Foreign policy leadership will be a campaign issue and Republican candidate John McCain never tires of emphasizing his long years of experience in foreign affairs, an area where Obama has little to show. Pictures of him alongside European leaders could make him appear more presidential.

It's not clear yet when Obama will make his trip to Europe. His advisors aren't providing details yet for security reasons. But he is expected to come in July, because he has a full schedule in August with the presentation of his runing mate and the nominating convention.

Diplomatic Distance

He will probably only spend a few hours in Berlin and it's unlikely that he will address a large audience or meet the public there. Too much open euphoria for Obama could damage his election chances at home. Many Democrats haven't forgotten how the Republicans labelled John Kerry as too "European" four years ago.

Besides, a public speech during the campaign would have to take place on neutral ground. Neither the German government nor the US embassy will want to give Obama a public stage in the middle of the election campaign. It's conceivable that Obama might meet Americans living in Germany to collect campaign donations.

His visit is likely to be an interesting tightrope walk for the German government. Obama's huge popularity in Germany means many politicians want to meet him as they look ahead to Germany's general election in late 2009.

He has inspired the center-left Social Democrats to the extent that the party's general secretary Hubertus Heil called out Obama's slogan "Yes We Can" during a recent party meeting.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a gushing account of a telephone conversation he had with Obama in April and will undoubtedly want to meet him.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom Obama will definitely meet, is well aware of his radiance. But she can't afford to give him an over-exuberant reception because that could alienate President George W. Bush, who only just visited her a few weeks ago during his European farewell trip and whose father, former president George H.W. Bush, is due to attend the July 4 opening of the new US embassy in Berlin.

Besides, too much cheering for Obama would be an affront to McCain. Merkel can't afford to be as outspoken as her government's coordinator on trans-Atlantic relations, Karsten Voigt, who said recently that Berlin welcomed any US presidential candidate -- especially Obama.

One conservative US foreign policy expert smiled at the thought that such considerations might make Merkel refrain from meeting the Democratic candidate. He recalled the controversy caused last year by her decision to meet the Dalai Lama. "If the Chancellor can meet the Dalai Lama, she should be able to meet Barack Obama."


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