What do Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton have in common–other than their roles as previous leaders of the free world? A penchant for international travel!
I’ll admit that even as a travel junkie experienced in the ways of fitting my life into a 20 lb backpack for months on end, many of our nation’s greatest leaders put my past travel itineraries to shame. Even prior to the boom in transportation technology President Teddy Roosevelt, the first to leave U.S. soil while in office, traveled by presidential yacht and safari, visiting foreign destinations such as Brazil, the African regions of Congo, Kenya, and Sudan, Cuba, and Panama.
Despite his love for hometown Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Eisenhower found himself visiting nearly 35 countries while in office, a far greater number than any previous president. Following close behind, Nixon became quite the globe-trotter, making perhaps the most important overseas trip in presidential history when he touched down in China and changed relations between the two nations forever. Regardless of being the oldest candidate ever elected, Reagan found himself in Berlin at the ripe age of 69 demanding that Gorbachev “tear down this wall”. And though Clinton had previously poked fun at Bush Sr.’s frequent flier track record, declaring “It’s time for us to have a president who cares more about Littleton, N.H., than about Liechtenstein”, he racked up a total of nearly 133 trips in an effort to build better international relations, tackling issues such as AIDS and the eradication of poverty.
While it would be inaccurate to say that every great president in American history was well-traveled (case in point: Abe Lincoln never left the U.S.), today’s interconnected world demands a greater sense of responsibility to the global community. Establishing personal contact with the populations of faraway regions is advisable, especially when trying to boost one’s international image. The advent of Air Force One, the most impressive and sophisticated means of presidential transportation to date, leaves little excuse for neglecting to visit and engage in shuttle diplomacy in distant locales.
For newly-elected president Barack Obama, choosing to embark on an overseas tour during his candidacy helped him win over the hearts and minds of not only voting U.S. citizens, but people around the world. The Washington Post provides a picture documentary of Obama’s international travels. His visits to Afghanistan, France, Germany, Iraq, and the U.K. have racked up an impressive number of miles, a figure which is likely to increase as he plans to spend more time in the developing world while in office. Check out the Dopplr 2008 Personal Annual Report for details on Obama’s travels.
In addition to the knowledge attained through interaction with other cultures, images of Obama consulting with foreign leaders and addressing the citizens of countries around the world greatly enhanced his international appeal. “Barack goes global” became a popular phrase used by news outlets, portraying the candidate as comfortable on the world stage from an early start. Global Pulse did a special report on “How the World Sees Barack Obama,” depicting Obama’s international popularity and his reception in the various countries he visited. The fervor of the American public, along with Obama’s message of hope, has made many optimistic that the new president could restore America’s global image.
According to newspaper polls conducted by market research firm Harris Interactive, if the world could vote, Obama would have won 78%of the vote in France, 72% in Germany, 70% percent in Canada and 61% in Japan.
Obama’s international legacy stems back to his multinational upbringing. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Ann Dunham, a European American from Wichita, Kansas, and Barack Obama, Sr., a Luo from Nyang’oma Kogelo, Kenya; Barack Hussein Obama is no stranger to foreign culture. In 1967 he moved to Indonesia with his mother, where he attended school in Jakarta before returning to Honolulu to finish his secondary studies and live with his maternal grandparents. While Hawaii might not seem like such a horrible place to grow up, spending his formative years in an interracial, international context presented challenges that ultimately prepared Obama for where he stands today. When reflecting on his early years, Obama commented: “The opportunity that Hawaii offered — to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect — became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear.”
Obama with his Kenyan grandmother, Sarah Hussein Obama
Given his ability to personally relate to people of several different world regions, it comes as no surprise that for people around the world, Obama’s presidential victory was cause to celebrate.
Given the current state of U.S. foreign affairs, I think it would be beneficial for Obama to visit regions where we have a strong military presence (predominantly the Middle East) to improve diplomatic relations and open the floor for more fluid negotiations. In addition, visits to nations that are struggling with humanitarian crises (such as the Darfur region of Sudan), would help pave the way for expanded public awareness of their plights, and hopefully lead to increased intervention on a global scale.
Given his message of “change” and his presence in the limelight of international media, what are your travel recommendations for Obama? What regions do you think could most benefit from increased U.S. attention?
For more on presidential travel past and present, check out these articles:
Follow the Leader: How the presidents stack up as travelers-in-chief (NBC Today)
100 Years Abroad: U.S. Presidents on the World Stage
Julie for My Wonderful World