Flying start: Obama's travels

Rarely has a US president enjoyed such popularity worldwide – and everywhere Air Force One touches down, crowds go wild. Tim Walker plots his course
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The Independent Online

By the end of his first 100 days as President, George W Bush had yet to leave North America, preferring instead to receive foreign leaders like Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon et al in Washington. But, with the world economy in tatters, and the US embroiled in two festering foreign conflicts, Obama enjoys no such luxury. On his nine foreign sojourns so far, the new president has had a warm welcome from his fellow heads of state, and from (most) foreign crowds.

But he also has to be careful not to get a name for himself as the foreigner's favourite president. When, during last year's election campaign, he addressed an ecstatic gathering of 200,000 in Berlin, it gave his Republican opponent a rare opening. Senator McCain's campaign used the footage to tar Obama as a "celebrity" more concerned with global fame than with the problems of heartland America.

Travelling to such momentous meetings as the G20, the NATO summit, and the Summit of the Americas has given the new president the perfect opportunity to begin reconfiguring America's place in the world. In London, he took the lead on global economic policy; in Strasbourg and Baghdad, he clarified his new strategy for the War on Terror; and in Trinidad he was able to visibly soften relations with former political foes of the US, Venezuela and Cuba. Under his administration, he told Latin American and Caribbean leaders, the US would seek an "equal partnership" with their nations. Though this may not be possible in practice, Obama has at least tried to convey the sentiments of a more humble superpower.

It's hard to be too humble, though, when your travelling circus is so substantial. On his recent European tour, Obama brought with him a 500-strong entourage. Levels of both comfort and security are high on a presidential trip: Air Force One has its own gym and medical staff. There's also a White House chef aboard, to prepare Obama's meals; the plane also carries countless Secret Service personnel and shields sufficient to survive a nuclear blast. After touchdown, Obama transfers to the now-famous 'Beast', his heavily armoured presidential limousine. As for Obama's next trip, the White House has announced a visit to China later this year. The US administration said it would re-open the human rights "dialogue" with the Asian superpower. But will Obama get as warm a welcome in Beijing as he did in Berlin?

Around the world: Obama's diary

Ottawa, Canada February 19

Obama got a warm welcome in Ottowa on his first, low-key foreign trip following the inauguration. He met conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss the state of their twin North American economies, and broached the subject of climate change: Obama wants to reduce US dependency on fossil fuels, but Canada's economy relies on its large oil exports. Obama also met Canada's acting head of state, Haitian-born governor-general Michaëlle Jean. The two leaders talked over the success of Canada's immigration policies.

Los Angeles, California March 18-19

California may seem like a foreign country to a lot of Americans, and with a state economy equivalent to some of the world's top 10 nations, its governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most powerful Republican in the US. In March, Obama made his first foray to the Sunshine State since the election, meeting with Schwarzenegger, learning about the development of emissions-reducing electric cars at the Edison Electric Vehicle Technical Centre and, most importantly, appearing on Jay Leno's 'Tonight Show', making him the first sitting president to appear on a late-night chat show.

London, UK March 31-April 3

Obama visited London for the G20 summit, giving Gordon Brown the chance to be the first European leader to greet the new President on his own soil. Obama hailed the London summit - at which leaders pledged $1.1 trillion to tackle the financial crisis - as a "historic" moment in world economics. The President also had time for a handshake with David Cameron, and a private audience with the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. Michelle, after making headlines by putting an arm around Her Majesty, was later mobbed by fans at a London girls' school.

Baden-Baden and Kehl, Germany April 3-4


The NATO summit also called for two short trips across the German border. After meeting President Sarkozy of France on the first day, Obama nipped over to Baden-Baden for a press conference with Chancellor Merkel and a classical concert. The following morning, Obama and other NATO leaders met for a symbolic stroll across the Rhine's Passarelle Mimram bridge, which connects Kehl and Strasbourg, to commemorate the co-operation of the NATO alliance and those who have fallen in its service.

Strasbourg, France April 3-4

Obama met his fellow NATO leaders in France on the 60th anniversary of the alliance, where he discussed a future strategy for Afghanistan. Though he had no trouble convincing other nations of the need for new action, the President was less successful when trying to persuade his NATO partners to commit combat troops to the continuing conflict with the Taliban. Anti-war protesters had running battles with police and were more energetic, if less reported, than the London G20 crowds.

Prague, Czech Republic April 4-5


In Hradcanske Square, in the shadow of Prague Castle, Obama addressed 30,000 Czechs on the sensitive subject of nuclear arms. He emphasised that the US would continue with its plans to build a missile defence system in the Czech Republic and Poland as long as Iran remained a potential nuclear threat, but re-stated his wish to progress the cause of worldwide nuclear disarmament – to roars of support from the sympathetic crowd. He also met with former Czech president Vaclav Havel, and his successor Vaclav Klaus.

Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey April 5-7

Turkey was the first Muslim country Obama visited as president, making a speech to the Turkish parliament in which he insisted the US would never be at war with Islam. US-Turkish relations have improved since the new president announced the withdrawal of US troops from Turkey's neighbour, Iraq. Some noted, however, that Obama avoided the touchy subject of the Armenian genocide. He laid a wreath at the tomb of Ataturk, father of the modern Turkey that emerged from the Great War.

Baghdad, Iraq April 7

Obama made a surprise visit to Iraq at the end of his European tour. He was there to meet Iraqi leaders and US military commanders, but also to reassure soldiers that he hadn't forgotten them in his enthusiasm for ending the war, an election promise. Obama told enthusiastic troops that they had "performed brilliantly... under enormous strain" and "given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country." Now, however, it was time for the Iraqis to "take responsibility" for their own security.

Mexico City, Mexico April 16-17

During a 24-hour trip to Mexico on his way to the Summit of the Americas, Obama focussed on the Mexican drug trade that is spilling across the US border and, he said, "sowing chaos in our communities". Obama pledged his support for the war against the trade which is being waged by Mexican President Felipe Calderon, and promised to push through a bill in Congress which will provide Mexican authorities with the Black Hawk helicopters and other hardware that they need to fight the drug cartels.

Port of Spain, Trinidad April 17-19

At the 2009 Summit of the Americas, Obama reached out to Cuba and Venezuela, nations that were, until now, hostile to the US. Having already eased travel restrictions between the two countries, he said that the US sought "a new beginning with Cuba", a sentiment reciprocated by Cuban leader Raul Castro (who was not present). Obama also met Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who presented him with a book, 'The Open Veins of Latin America', making it an instant Amazon bestseller.

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