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Many Countries Are Hopeful New U.S. President Will Address Their Concerns

A BBC poll of more than 17,000 people in 17 countries reveals they are optimistic that Barack Obama’s presidency will improve relations with the rest of the world. The poll also indicates that people expect Mr. Obama to make the global economic crisis his top priority.

World leaders and ordinary citizens are expressing optimism about America’s new president. However, a recent New York Times poll revealed that citizens in 18 of 21 countries do not view the United States favorably. Only in India, Poland, and the United States did majorities give the United States favorable ratings. That suggests President Obama will face a daunting challenge in international affairs.

An Indian Perspective

Indian journalist Jehangir Pocha, editor of Business World in New Delhi, says Indians share with Americans a primary concern about the urgent need to address the economic crisis, and they are looking to President Obama for strong leadership. Pocha points to the challenge of dealing with sub-prime prices, which are causing a “rollover effect” for the economy in India and in countries around the world. He also says Indians are increasingly expressing the belief that the United States needs to extract itself from Iraq and from Afghanistan, but in a responsible manner that will not create more terrorism.

Jehangir Pocha says Indians are delighted with the tone set by the new American President in his inaugural address. According to Pocha, most Indians viewed President Bush as “didactic” in his approach to foreign policy, giving the impression that it was either “my way – or the highway.” Pocha says the new president is seen as more understanding of the complexity of the world, enabling him to face problems in what he calls a “realistic and sensitive way.”

An Arab Perspective

Even in the Arab world, where attitudes toward the United States are at an all-time low, people are expressing guarded optimism about Mr. Obama. Nadia Bilbassy, senior correspondent of the Middle East News Center, says there is a sense that the new U.S. president is committed to tackling their top priorities.

First on their list, she says, is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. And because there is so much anger over the recent devastation and human loss in Gaza, she adds, people think that President Obama cannot afford to ignore it. In fact, she says they see it as a good sign that he got involved on Day One of his presidency. The following day, Mr. Obama named former U.S. Senator George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy. In the Arab world, Bilbassy says, the Number Two priority is Iraq. She says people are keeping a close eye on whether President Obama will fulfill his campaign promises to withdraw U.S. troops. Bilbassy says they are also concerned about the effect on neighboring countries, especially Iran and Syria, and they wonder whether or not an Obama administration will start a new dialogue with their “enemies.”

According to Nadia Bilbassy, Arab optimism regarding the Middle East is tempered by a pronounced strain of realism. Arabs realize that Israel is a strategic ally of the United States and that fact is not going to change, she says. However, they do expect the Obama administration’s approach to the Middle East peace process to change for the better.

A German Perspective

In Europe, German journalist Matthias Rueb of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says expectations are so high that they could lead to serious disappointment down the road. One of the top European priorities, Rueb notes, is climate policy. And it is already clear there will be a significant change in the U.S. position – in trying to become more energy independent, in fostering renewable energy sources, and in being willing to become part of what Rueb calls an “international framework” to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Furthermore, Europeans would like to see a U.S. government that is fully engaged in international institutions. Rueb says that, during the Bush administration, Germans and other Europeans thought Washington used NATO as a foreign policy tool, not as a framework to deal with partners. He says Europeans hope that the United States will use the United Nations as the “primary place” to resolve international problems – for example, issues related to Iran, North Korea, and the Middle East.

So Far, So Good

President Obama signaled in his inaugural address on Tuesday that his initial focus would be on foreign policy. And on his first two days in office he did that by focusing on shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility for terrorism suspects, something that has proved to be a problem for U.S.-international relations.

He also signaled his intention to deal immediately with a sagging Mideast peace process, an increasingly violent war in Afghanistan, and the importance of dealing with Pakistan as a key player in the fight against terrorism, by naming two impressive negotiators to help bring some resolution to those on-going international concerns.