Barack Obama soon will make his second overseas trip as President, visiting Egypt, Germany and France. Although Obama differs from his predecessors in many respects, some things are true of any Presidential visit to a foreign country. The people at the White House who plan the trip want to set a theme, they want a memorable speech or public event, and they want good images. There is no reason for Obama’s media advisers to think any differently.
Or is there?
The nascent Obama era has captured the imagination of people everywhere who believe that the foundational aspects of international relations involve human, not economic, interests, and that those interests involve healthy dialogue. That has led to a pushback from those who suspect that Obama is, well, a wimp.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously lamented "How much of human life is lost in waiting" and observers of U.S. public diplomacy these last few months could be forgiven for saying the same thing. While other areas of government have something to show for the first one-hundred days of the Obama administration, formal public diplomacy initiatives have been hard to find.
The more things stay the same, the more they change.
An American president traveled to Iraq to praise American soldiers for giving that nation time to stand on its own feet. He told Muslims that the United States respected their religion. He expressed his commitment to an American military presence in Afghanistan. And he refused to back down from regularly violating Pakistani sovereignty as he fights anti-American forces there.
On March 18, 2009, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed legislation overturning the state’s longstanding death penalty. The “Land of Enchantment”, as the state calls itself, joined fourteen other US states that ban capital punishment and became only the second to do so since the end of a four-year national execution hiatus in 1976.
For all the brainpower that Barack Obama has brought to Washington, the only senior official with the right touch for articulating policy via the media seems to be the President himself. Last week he scored big in two TV firsts — a taped for broadcast greeting to Iran and an appearance on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s speech at the opening of the U.S-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar (February, 2009) was interrupted with applause as the audience heard something unusual – at least in the last eight years: a firm criticism of U.S. government policy by a respected opinion leader from America.