January 22, 2009

As Obama Takes Office, Global Press Turns to Regional Concerns

by Richard Wike, Associate Director, Pew Global Attitudes Project, and Michael Remez, Senior Writer, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

The celebratory tone that characterized international media coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election victory was again pervasive in many of the stories about his inauguration as the 44th American president. “History was being made up there on the hill,” raved Britain’s Daily Mail, “and the atmosphere was so electrifying that it took your breath away.” “The United States has got its groove back,” according to Germany’s Der Spiegel.

However, many newspapers noted the more somber tone of Obama’s speech, and were themselves relatively somber about the enormous challenges and inflated expectations facing the new president. “Like his new Administration,” wrote the Times of London, “his inaugural address faced soaring expectations. It did not quite soar to meet them.” The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called the speech “sober,” and suggested it was “certainly aimed at dampening the messianic hopes that have been raised by his inauguration.”1

An editorial in El País, one of Spain’s largest newspapers, cautioned that Obama’s agenda is at the mercy of many “imponderables,” as well as the will of Congress; and it warned that Obama will have to devote the bulk of his energy to grappling with the crises facing the United States before dealing with “just causes” around the world.

Beyond warnings about tempering hope with realism, however, international newspapers were focused on regional concerns. As the Obama presidency becomes a reality, newspapers around the world are wondering how the new president will deal with the issues that their readers care about.

Gaza a Prism for Middle East Media

In the Middle East, hopes and fears about the new administration are shaped by the conflict in Gaza, where a tenuous cease fire remains in place. The Israeli daily Ha’aretz sees Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy as a model for an Israel “drunk on power” in the aftermath of the Gaza campaign, arguing that as they prepare for their own national elections in a few weeks, Israelis “should internalize Obama’s calls for restraint as an attribute of security, as well as his approach that favors dialogue and seeking paths toward understanding with yesterday’s enemies.”

Others in Israel, however, worry about the new president’s Middle East policy. The Jerusalem Post said that many “are apprehensive over whether he will be not just supportive, but emphatic toward Israel — like George W. Bush.” Still, the paper noted that “Israel had plenty of ups and downs with Bush, too,” and advises Israelis not to “panic at the first sign of turbulence in Jerusalem-Washington relations.” Obama, the editorial continued, “will support the Jewish state in its quest for defensible borders and genuine acceptance by its neighbors.”

The Gaza story has dominated Arab media for weeks, and some Arab commentators have suggested that Obama’s silence on the issue may indicate he plans few changes to American policy in the region. The Middle East Times complained “Obama may have seriously undermined the bold new initiatives he plans for the Middle East,” by entrusting his foreign policy “to an exceptionally old-fashioned national security team.”

Others are more hopeful that Obama will reverse what they perceive as longstanding American bias in the region. “What the new U.S. president has to do to correct past failures and bring about peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors,” wrote the Jordan Times, “is to signal, as early as possible, his determination to be even handed and bold in pursuing a policy of proactive engagement in the Palestinian problem.”

The English-language Arab News is relatively positive, arguing that Obama “starts his presidency with one towering advantage that no previous president who has involved himself with the Middle East ever enjoyed. He starts with a clean slate and has the good will of everyone involved.” Moreover, the paper noted the limits of Obama’s power and suggested that the rest of the world cannot expect “the Oval Office to come up with all the solutions.”

Europeans Still Hopeful

Since the early days of the presidential race, Obama has been very popular in Europe. A Pew Global Attitudes Project survey conducted last spring2 found that Obama’s popularity was widespread, and his approval ratings were consistently higher than those of his Republican rival, John McCain. The European press has also mostly embraced Obama — “GOBAMA!” proclaimed Britain’s Daily Mail the day after the election.

This positive tone has also characterized more recent European coverage of the new president. In particular, the European press is hopeful that Obama will wield American power very differently from his predecessor. Last week, in France’ Le Figaro, Pierre Rousselin lauded Obama’s selection of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, highlighting her emphasis on “two simple and percussive words ‘smart power.” “In entrusting Clinton with the Department of State,” writes Rousselin, “Obama is marking a genuine break with the outgoing administration. Diplomacy will no longer be one tool among many. It will be, on the contrary, at the heart of action of the new presidency.”3

Le Monde also aimed a final shot at the outgoing president, suggesting that an Obama presidency will be “a thousand miles from the narrow patriotism and ignorance of the team before.” But Germany’s center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung said America’s problems ran deeper than just the Bush administration, arguing that “America’s weaknesses were not only George W. Bush’s and his clique, but rather the intellectual position that spread throughout the country: an imperialist megalomania, a power trip, that didn’t leave room for friends.” This “power trip” harmed America’s image, but Obama’s victory signaled a sea change, and “people across the world are looking benevolently at America, at this positive and dynamic society that allows so much freedom.”4

However, even the European press sees potential problems ahead. For instance, while Obama has called for more troops and more NATO burden sharing in Afghanistan, Der Spiegel noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel says her country will “remain steadfast in its refusal to deploy its troops in Afghanistan in the more dangerous south.” And while Obama’s decision to suspend tribunals in Guantanamo will no doubt generate favorable reactions across Europe, he may not find widespread European cooperation on the sticky issue of resettling the prison’s detainees. “Germany’s hard-nosed interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has insisted that the prisoners are America’s problem,” according to Der Spiegel.

Bi-lateral Concerns

Much of the international coverage highlighted bi-lateral relations between the United States and other countries. In an opinion piece in the China Daily, Yuan Peng, a Chinese analyst, warned that the two countries “face an urgent challenge of finding out how to defuse the potential crises in bilateral relations and put them onto a track of normal and smooth development.” Peng wrote that Obama will expect China to play a constructive role in international crises — such as the war against terror and “how to handle the issues on the Korean peninsula and in Iran.” The piece called for greater joint efforts to prevent problems that could “hijack” bilateral ties, but still warned — referring to trouble spots such as Tibet and Taiwan — that the U.S. “should avoid intervention in China’s internal affairs.” International economic woes will require that leaders of both nations focus on domestic issues, a fact that the writer said “will unavoidably hinder elasticity and flexibility in their foreign policies.”

In The Moscow Times, Fyodor Lukyanov wrote of the importance of improving relations between the U.S. and Russia, noting that “bilateral relations could hardly get any worse.” He noted that “there is an extremely high level of mistrust between the two countries,” and warned that friction is likely to continue over the status of the former Soviet republics. Still, Lukyanov said Obama will likely need Russia’s help in dealing with Iran and Pakistan.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper in Japan wrote after the inauguration about the difficulties that Prime Minister Taro Aso will face in forging close ties with the new president. “Hammered by the economic downturn and plummeting support rates at home, Aso’s hands appear tied on the diplomatic front.” The newspaper said Japan is not in an economic position to provide much help for the global economic crisis, adding that the prime minister also has little leeway to boost spending to help stabilize Afghanistan, an Obama priority in the fight against terror. Japanese officials, the newspaper said, are eager for the leaders to meet this spring.

In Korea, the Joong Ang Daily congratulated Obama but noted the great problems — both domestic and foreign — that his administration will confront. And it highlighted the top priorities for South Korea. “For Koreans, the North Korea nuclear issue and the pending Korea-U.S. free trade agreement are of the utmost interest,” the article said. “The U.S. should try to balance resolving the North’s nuclear issue through close cooperation with South Korea while at the same time adopting a tough diplomatic stance.”

The newspaper acknowledged Obama faces tough choices on Korea policy, including whether to push forward with a pending trade deal that faced some strong opposition in Congress even before the economic crisis worsened. “The Obama administration needs to decide whether delaying approval of the bilateral trade deal with Korea and pursuing protectionism will serve U.S. national interests and the spirit of the Korea-U.S. alliance,” the editorial said.

U.S. neighbors also see the start of the new administration through the prism of long-standing concerns. In The Toronto Star, James Travers wrote in his column about the common economic concerns of both countries and the need for Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, to make the case to Obama that North America is most competitive “when it is most cohesive.”

“Obama’s decision to make Ottawa his first foreign destination is the opening Harper needs to present this country as an essential business partner as well as a trusted friend,” Travers wrote. “[E]xpect the prime minister to make the case that the two countries have evolved beyond trading with each other to manufacturing together.”

An editorial in El Universal, the Mexico City newspaper, also spoke optimistically about the change in administrations in Washington, but warned that Mexico and the U.S. still face difficult issues in dealing with immigration, free trade and security. Obama’s speech offered reason to celebrate, the newspaper said, but only time will tell whether the changes are as big as promised.

Meanwhile, Kenya’s the Daily Nation newspaper highlighted Obama’s paternal roots in that country and called for a change in tone in U.S foreign policy. “President Obama must move decisively to restore faith, trust and respect as a cornerstone of U.S foreign policy,’’ the paper wrote. “If the U.S. treats the rest of the world as friends and partners, it might find that the hate it attracts will dissipate, and so will some of the attitudes that make the country a prime target for international terrorism.”

In the End, it’s the Economy

Despite much upbeat coverage of inauguration day and the start of Obama’s presidency, many writers highlighted the great obstacles Obama will face. For example, Les Carlyon, an Australian journalist and historian, wrote in the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, that though Obama is seen as the beacon of hope and healing, he has inherited the worst financial mess in generations.

“Is he capable of cleaning it up? We really have no idea. If he isn’t, the poise and fine words won’t matter too much,” Carlyon wrote. “[F]rom today — and for the next four years — deeds will matter more than words.”

  1. Translation from the original German by SpiegelOnline.
  2. Obamamania Abroad: The Candidate Can Expect a Warm Welcome in Europe, Not So in the Middle East,” Pew Global Attitudes Project, July 16, 2008.
  3. Translation from the original French by WorldMeets.US.
  4. Translation from the original German by SpiegelOnline.