IT TURNS OUT THAT THERE’S a standard design to every international summit. Leaders pull up one by one in their limos to the entrance of a large convention center and then walk past a phalanx of photographers—a bit like a Hollywood red carpet without the fancy gowns and beautiful people. A protocol officer meets you at the door and leads you into a hall where the host leader is waiting: a smile and a handshake for the cameras, whispered small talk. Then on to the leader’s lounge for more handshakes and small talk, until all the presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, and kings head into an impressively large conference room with a massive circular table. At your seat, you find a small nameplate, your national flag, a microphone with operating instructions, a commemorative writing pad and pen of varying quality, a headset for the simultaneous translation, a glass and bottles of water or juice, and maybe a plate of snacks or bowl of mints. Your delegation is seated behind you to take notes and pass along messages.

The host calls the meeting to order. He or she makes opening remarks. And then, for the next day and a half—with scheduled breaks for one-on-one meetings with other leaders (known as “bilaterals” or “bilats”), a “family photo” (all the leaders lined up and smiling awkwardly, not unlike a third-grade class picture), and just enough time in the late afternoon to go back to your suite and change clothes before dinner and sometimes an evening session—you sit there, fighting off jet lag and doing your best to look interested, as everyone around the table, including yourself, takes turns reading a set of carefully scripted, anodyne, and invariably much-longer-than-the-time-allotted remarks about whatever topic happens to be on the agenda.

Later, after I had a few summits under my belt, I would adopt the survival tactics of more experienced attendees—making sure I always carried paperwork to do or something to read, or discreetly pulling other leaders aside to do a bit of secondary business while others commanded the mic. But for that first G20 summit in London, I stayed in my seat and listened intently to every speaker. Like the new kid at school, I was aware that others in the room were taking the measure of me, and I figured a bit of rookie humility might go a long way toward rallying people around the economic measures I was there to propose.

It helped that I already knew a number of leaders in the room, starting with our host, British prime minister Gordon Brown, who had traveled to Washington for a meeting with me just a few weeks earlier. A former chancellor of the exchequer in Tony Blair’s Labour government, Brown lacked the sparkly political gifts of his predecessor (it seemed as if every media mention of Brown included the term “dour”), and he’d suffered the misfortune of finally getting his turn at the prime ministership just as Britain’s economy was collapsing and its public was tiring of the Labour Party’s decade-long run. But he was thoughtful, responsible, and understood global finance, and although his time in office would prove short-lived, I was fortunate to have him as a partner during those early months of the crisis.

Along with Brown, the most consequential Europeans—not just at the London summit but throughout my first term—were German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The rivalry between the continent’s two most powerful countries had caused nearly two centuries of bloody, on-and-off war. Their reconciliation following World War II became the cornerstone of the European Union (E.U.) and its unprecedented run of peace and prosperity. Accordingly, Europe’s ability to move as a bloc—and to serve as America’s wingman on the world stage—depended largely on Merkel’s and Sarkozy’s willingness to work well together.

For the most part they did, despite the fact that temperamentally the two leaders couldn’t have been more different. Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, had grown up in Communist East Germany, keeping her head down and earning a PhD in quantum chemistry. Only after the Iron Curtain fell did she enter politics, methodically moving up the ranks of the center-right Christian Democratic Union party with a combination of organizational skill, strategic acumen, and unwavering patience. Merkel’s eyes were big and bright blue and could be touched by turns with frustration, amusement, or hints of sorrow. Otherwise, her stolid appearance reflected her no-nonsense, analytical sensibility. She was famously suspicious of emotional outbursts or overblown rhetoric, and her team would later confess that she’d been initially skeptical of me precisely because of my oratorical skills. I took no offense, figuring that in a German leader, an aversion to possible demagoguery was probably a healthy thing.

Sarkozy, on the other hand, was all emotional outbursts and overblown rhetoric. With his dark, expressive, vaguely Mediterranean features (he was half Hungarian and a quarter Greek Jew) and small stature (he was about five foot five but wore lifts in his shoes to make himself taller), he looked like a figure out of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting. Despite coming from a wealthy family, he readily admitted that his ambitions were fueled in part by a lifelong sense of being an outsider. Like Merkel, Sarkozy had made his name as a leader of the center right, winning the presidency on a platform of laissez-faire economics, looser labor regulations, lower taxes, and a less pervasive welfare state. But unlike Merkel, he lurched all over the map when it came to policy, often driven by headlines or political expedience. By the time we arrived in London for the G20, he was already vocally denouncing the excesses of global capitalism. What Sarkozy lacked in ideological consistency, he made up for in boldness, charm, and manic energy. Indeed, conversations with Sarkozy were by turns amusing and exasperating, his hands in perpetual motion, his chest thrust out like a bantam cock’s, his personal translator (unlike Merkel, he spoke limited English) always beside him to frantically mirror his every gesture and intonation as the conversation swooped from flattery to bluster to genuine insight, never straying far from his primary, barely disguised interest, which was to be at the center of the action and take credit for whatever it was that might be worth taking credit for.

As much as I appreciated the fact that Sarkozy had embraced my campaign early on (all but endorsing me in an effusive press conference during my preelection visit to Paris), it wasn’t hard to tell which of the two European leaders would prove to be the more reliable partner. I came, though, to see Merkel and Sarkozy as useful complements to each other: Sarkozy respectful of Merkel’s innate caution but often pushing her to act, Merkel willing to overlook Sarkozy’s idiosyncrasies but deft at reining in his more impulsive proposals. They also reinforced each other’s pro-American instincts—instincts that, in 2009, were not always shared by their constituents.

NONE OF THIS meant that they and the other Europeans were pushovers. Guarding the interests of their countries, both Merkel and Sarkozy strongly favored the declaration against protectionism that we were proposing in London—Germany’s economy was especially reliant on exports—and recognized the utility of an international emergency fund. But as Tim Geithner had predicted, neither had any enthusiasm for fiscal stimulus: Merkel was worried about deficit spending; Sarkozy preferred a universal tax on stock market transactions and wanted to crack down on tax havens. It took most of the summit for me and Tim to convince the two of them to join us in promoting more immediate ways to address the crisis, calling on each G20 country to implement policies that increased aggregate demand. They would do so, they told me, only if I could convince the rest of the G20 leaders—particularly a group of influential non-Western countries that came to be collectively known as the BRICS—to stop blocking proposals that were important to them.

Economically, the five countries that made up the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—had little in common, and it wasn’t until later that they would actually formalize the group. (South Africa wouldn’t formally join until 2010.) But even at the London G20, the animating spirit behind the association was clear. These were big, proud nations that in one way or another had emerged from long slumbers. They were no longer satisfied with being relegated to the margins of history or seeing their status reduced to that of regional powers. They chafed at the West’s outsized role in managing the global economy. And with the current crisis, they saw a chance to start flipping the script.

In theory, at least, I could sympathize with their point of view. Together, the BRICS represented just over 40 percent of the world’s population but about a quarter of the world’s GDP and only a fraction of its wealth. Decisions made in the corporate boardrooms of New York, London, or Paris often had more impact on their economies than the policy choices of their own governments. Their influence within the World Bank and the IMF remained limited, despite the remarkable economic transformations that had taken place in China, India, and Brazil. If the United States wanted to preserve the global system that had long served us, it made sense for us to give these emerging powers a greater say in how it operated—while also insisting that they take more responsibility for the costs of its maintenance.

And yet as I glanced around the table on the summit’s second day, I couldn’t help but wonder how a larger role for the BRICS in global governance might play out. Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for example, had visited the Oval Office in March, and I’d found him impressive. A grizzled, engaging former labor leader who’d been jailed for protesting the previous military government and then elected in 2002, he had initiated a series of pragmatic reforms that sent Brazil’s growth rate soaring, expanded its middle class, and provided housing and education to millions of its poorest citizens. He also reportedly had the scruples of a Tammany Hall boss, and rumors swirled about government cronyism, sweetheart deals, and kickbacks that ran into the billions.

President Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, appeared to be a poster child for the new Russia: young, trim, and clothed in hip, European-tailored suits. Except that he wasn’t the real power in Russia. That spot was occupied by his patron, Vladimir Putin: a former KGB officer, two-term president and now the country’s prime minister, and the leader of what resembled a criminal syndicate as much as it did a traditional government—a syndicate that had its tentacles wrapped around every aspect of the country’s economy.

South Africa at the time was in a transition, with interim president Kgalema Motlanthe soon to be replaced by Jacob Zuma, the leader of Nelson Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, which controlled the country’s parliament. In subsequent meetings, Zuma struck me as amiable enough. He spoke eloquently of the need for fair trade, human development, infrastructure, and more equitable distributions of wealth and opportunity on the African continent. By all accounts, though, much of the goodwill built up through Mandela’s heroic struggle was being squandered by corruption and incompetence under ANC leadership, leaving large swaths of the country’s black population still mired in poverty and despair.

Manmohan Singh, the prime minister of India, meanwhile, had engineered the modernization of his nation’s economy. A gentle, soft-spoken economist in his seventies, with a white beard and a turban that were the marks of his Sikh faith but to the Western eye lent him the air of a holy man, he had been India’s finance minister in the 1990s, managing to lift millions of people from poverty. For the duration of his tenure as prime minister, I would find Singh to be wise, thoughtful, and scrupulously honest. Despite its genuine economic progress, though, India remained a chaotic and impoverished place: largely divided by religion and caste, captive to the whims of corrupt local officials and power brokers, hamstrung by a parochial bureaucracy that was resistant to change.

And then there was China. Since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping effectively abandoned Mao Zedong’s Marxist-Leninist vision in favor of an export-driven, state-managed form of capitalism, no nation in history had developed faster or moved more people out of abject poverty. Once little more than a hub of low-grade manufacturing and assembly for foreign companies looking to take advantage of its endless supply of low-wage workers, China now boasted topflight engineers and world-class companies working at the cutting edge of advanced technology. Its massive trade surplus made it a major investor on every continent; gleaming cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou had become sophisticated financial centers, home to a burgeoning consumer class. Given its growth rate and sheer size, China’s GDP was guaranteed at some point to surpass America’s. When you added this to the country’s powerful military, increasingly skilled workforce, shrewd and pragmatic government, and cohesive five-thousand-year-old culture, the conclusion felt obvious: If any country was likely to challenge U.S. preeminence on the world stage, it was China.

And yet watching the Chinese delegation operate at the G20, I was convinced that any such challenge was still decades away—and that if and when it came, it would most likely happen as a result of America’s strategic mistakes. By all accounts, Chinese president Hu Jintao—a nondescript man in his mid-sixties with a mane of jet-black hair (as far as I could tell, few Chinese leaders turned gray as they aged)—was not seen as a particularly strong leader, sharing authority as he did with other members of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee. Sure enough, in our meeting at the margins of the summit, Hu appeared content to rely on pages of prepared talking points, with no apparent agenda beyond encouraging continued consultation and what he referred to as “win-win” cooperation. More impressive to me was China’s chief economic policy maker, Premier Wen Jiabao, a small, bespectacled figure who spoke without notes and displayed a sophisticated grasp of the current crisis; his affirmed commitment to a Chinese stimulus package on a scale mirroring that of the Recovery Act was probably the single best piece of news I would hear during my time at the G20. But even so, the Chinese were in no hurry to seize the reins of the international world order, viewing it as a headache they didn’t need. Wen had little to say about how to manage the financial crisis going forward. From his country’s standpoint, the onus was on us to figure it out.

This was the thing that would strike me not just during the London summit but at every international forum I attended while president: Even those who complained about America’s role in the world still relied on us to keep the system afloat. To varying degrees, other countries were willing to pitch in—contributing troops to U.N. peacekeeping efforts, say, or providing cash and logistical support for famine relief. Some, like the Scandinavian countries, consistently punched well above their weight. But otherwise, few nations felt obliged to act beyond narrow self-interest; and those that shared America’s basic commitment to the principles upon which a liberal, market-based system depended—individual freedom, the rule of law, strong enforcement of property rights and neutral arbitration of disputes, plus baseline levels of governmental accountability and competence—lacked the economic and political heft, not to mention the army of diplomats and policy experts, to promote those principles on a global scale.

China, Russia, and even genuine democracies like Brazil, India, and South Africa still operated on different principles. For the BRICS, responsible foreign policy meant tending to one’s own affairs. They abided by the established rules only insofar as their own interests were advanced, out of necessity rather than conviction, and they appeared happy to violate them when they thought they could get away with it. If they assisted another country, they preferred to do so on a bilateral basis, expecting some benefit in return. These nations certainly felt no obligation to underwrite the system as a whole. As far as they were concerned, that was a luxury only a fat and happy West could afford.

OF ALL THE BRICS leaders in attendance at the G20, I was most interested in engaging with Medvedev. The U.S. relationship with Russia was at a particularly low point. The previous summer—a few months after Medvedev had been sworn into office—Russia had invaded the neighboring country of Georgia, a former Soviet republic, and illegally occupied two of its provinces, triggering violence between the two countries and tensions with other border nations.

For us, it was a sign of Putin’s escalating boldness and general belligerence, a troubling unwillingness to respect another nation’s sovereignty and a broader flouting of international law. And in many ways, it appeared he’d gotten away with it: Beyond suspending diplomatic contacts, the Bush administration had done next to nothing to punish Russia for its aggression, and the rest of the world had shrugged its shoulders and moved on, making any belated efforts to isolate Russia almost certain to fail. My administration’s hope was to initiate what we were calling a “reset” with Russia, opening a dialogue in order to protect our interests, support our democratic partners in the region, and enlist cooperation on our goals for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. To this end, we’d arranged for me to meet privately with Medvedev a day ahead of the summit.

I relied on two Russia experts to prepare me for the meeting: the State Department’s undersecretary for political affairs, Bill Burns, and our NSC senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, Michael McFaul. Burns, a career diplomat who’d been the Bush administration’s ambassador to Russia, was tall, mustached, and slightly stooped, with a gentle voice and the bookish air of an Oxford don. McFaul, on the other hand, was all energy and enthusiasm, with a wide smile and a blond mop of hair. A native Montanan, he’d advised my campaign while still teaching at Stanford and seemed to end every statement with an exclamation point.

Of the two, McFaul was more bullish about our ability to have an influence on Russia, partly because he’d lived in Moscow in the early 1990s, during the heady days of political transformation, first as a scholar and later as the in-country director of a pro-democracy organization funded in part by the U.S. government. When it came to Medvedev, though, McFaul agreed with Burns that I shouldn’t expect too much.

“Medvedev’s going to be interested in establishing a good relationship with you, to prove that he belongs on the world stage,” he said. “But you have to remember that Putin still calls the shots.”

Looking over his biography, I could see why everyone assumed Dmitry Medvedev was on a short leash. In his early forties, raised in relative privilege as the only child of two professors, he’d studied law in the late 1980s, lectured at Leningrad State University, and gotten to know Vladimir Putin when they both worked for the mayor of St. Petersburg in the early 1990s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. While Putin stayed in politics, eventually becoming prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin, Medvedev leveraged his political connections to secure an executive position and ownership stake in Russia’s largest lumber company, at a time when the country’s chaotic privatization of state-owned assets offered well-connected shareholders a guaranteed fortune. Quietly he became a wealthy man, called upon to work on various civic projects without having to bear the burden of the spotlight. It wasn’t until late 1999 that he got pulled back into government, recruited by Putin for a high-level job in Moscow. Just a month later, Yeltsin abruptly resigned, elevating Putin from prime minister to acting president, with Medvedev rising behind him.

In other words, Medvedev was a technocrat and a behind-the-scenes operator, without much of a public profile or political base of his own. And that’s exactly how he came across when he arrived for our meeting at Winfield House, the U.S. ambassador’s elegant residence on the outskirts of London. He was a small man, dark-haired and affable, with a slightly formal, almost self-deprecating manner, more international management consultant than politician or party apparatchik. Apparently he understood English, although he preferred speaking with a translator.

I opened our discussion with the subject of his country’s military occupation of Georgia. As expected, Medvedev stuck closely to the official talking points. He blamed the Georgian government for precipitating the crisis and insisted that Russia had acted only to protect Russian citizens from violence. He dismissed my argument that the invasion and continued occupation violated Georgia’s sovereignty and international law, and he pointedly suggested that, unlike U.S. forces in Iraq, Russian forces had genuinely been greeted as liberators. Hearing all this, I remembered what the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said about politics during the Soviet era, that “the lie has become not just a moral category but a pillar of the State.”

But if Medvedev’s rebuttal on Georgia reminded me that he was no Boy Scout, I noticed a certain ironic detachment in his delivery, as if he wanted me to know that he didn’t really believe everything he was saying. As the conversation shifted to other topics, so did his disposition. On the steps needed to manage the financial crisis, he was well briefed and constructive. He expressed enthusiasm for our proposed “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations, especially when it came to expanding cooperation on nonmilitary issues like education, science, technology, and trade. He surprised us by making an unprompted (and unprecedented) offer to let the U.S. military use Russian airspace to transport troops and equipment to Afghanistan—an alternative that would reduce our exclusive reliance on expensive and not always reliable Pakistani supply routes.

And on my highest-priority issue—U.S.-Russian cooperation to curb nuclear proliferation, including Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons—Medvedev showed a readiness to engage with frankness and flexibility. He accepted my proposal to have our respective experts immediately begin negotiations on cuts to each country’s nuclear stockpiles as a follow-up to the existing Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which was set to expire at the end of 2009. Although he wasn’t prepared to commit to an international effort to constrain Iran, he didn’t dismiss it out of hand, going so far as to acknowledge that Iran’s nuclear and missile programs had advanced much faster than Moscow had expected—a concession that neither McFaul nor Burns could recall a Russian official ever having made, even in private.

Still, Medvedev was far from acquiescent. He made clear during our discussions about nonproliferation that Russia had a priority of its own: wanting us to reconsider the Bush administration’s decision to build a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. He was speaking, I assumed, on behalf of Putin, who correctly understood that the main reason the Poles and the Czechs were eager to host our system was that it would guarantee increased U.S. military capabilities on their soil, providing an additional hedge against Russian intimidation.

The truth is that, unbeknownst to the Russians, we were already reconsidering the idea of a land-based missile defense in Europe. Before I’d left for London, Robert Gates had informed me that the plans developed under Bush had been judged potentially less effective against the most pressing threats (chiefly Iran) than originally envisioned. Gates had suggested that I order a review of other possible configurations before making any decision.

I wasn’t willing to grant Medvedev’s request to fold missile defense considerations into upcoming START negotiations. I did think, however, that it was in our interest to reduce Russian anxiety. And the fortuitous timing allowed me to make sure Medvedev didn’t leave London empty-handed: I presented my intent to review our plans in Europe as a show of willingness to discuss the issue in good faith. I added that progress on halting Iran’s nuclear program would almost certainly have a bearing on any decision I might make—a not-so-subtle message, to which Medvedev responded before it was even translated.

“I understand,” he said in English, with a slight smile.

Before leaving, Medvedev also extended an invitation for me to visit Moscow during the summer, a meeting I was inclined to accept. After watching his motorcade drive away, I turned to Burns and McFaul and asked what they thought.

“I’ll be honest, Mr. President,” McFaul said. “I don’t know how it could’ve gone much better. He seemed a lot more open to doing business than I would have expected.”

“Mike’s right,” Burns said, “although I do wonder how much of what Medvedev said was cleared with Putin beforehand.”

I nodded. “We’ll find out soon enough.”

BY THE END of the London summit, the G20 had managed to strike a deal in response to the global financial crisis. The final communiqué, to be issued jointly by the leaders in attendance, included U.S. priorities like additional commitments to stimulus and a rejection of protectionism, along with measures to eliminate tax havens and improve financial oversight that were important to the Europeans. BRICS nations could point to a commitment from the United States and the European Union to examine possible changes in their World Bank and IMF representation. In a rush of enthusiasm, Sarkozy grabbed both me and Tim as we were about to leave the venue.

“This agreement is historic, Barack!” he said. “It has happened because of you…No, no, it’s true! And Mr. Geithner here…he’s magnificent!” Sarkozy then started chanting my Treasury secretary’s last name like a fan at a football game, loudly enough to turn a few heads in the room. I had to laugh, not only at Tim’s evident discomfort but also at the stricken expression on Angela Merkel’s face—she had just finished looking over the wording of the communiqué and was now eyeing Sarkozy the way a mother eyes an unruly child.

The international press deemed the summit a success: Not only was the deal more substantive than expected, but our central role in the negotiations had helped to at least partially reverse the view that the financial crisis had permanently damaged U.S. leadership. At the closing press conference, I was careful to credit everyone who’d played a role, praising Gordon Brown in particular for his leadership and arguing that in this interconnected world, no single nation could go it alone. Solving big problems, I said, demanded the kind of international cooperation on display in London.

Two days later, a reporter followed up on this, asking for my views on American exceptionalism. “I believe in American exceptionalism,” I said. “Just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

Only later would I learn that Republicans and conservative news outlets had seized upon this unremarkable statement, one made in an effort to show modesty and good manners, as evidence of weakness and insufficient patriotism on my part. Pundits began to characterize my interactions with other leaders and citizens of other nations as “Obama’s Apology Tour,” although they could never point to any actual apologies. Evidently my failure to lecture foreign audiences on American superiority, not to mention my willingness to acknowledge our imperfections and take the views of other countries into account, was somehow undermining. It was another reminder of how splintered our media landscape had become—and how an increasingly poisonous partisanship no longer stopped at the water’s edge. In this new world, a foreign policy victory by every traditional standard could be spun as a defeat, at least in the minds of half the country; messages that advanced our interests and built goodwill abroad could lead to a host of political headaches back home.

On a happier note, Michelle was a hit in her international debut, garnering especially glowing press for a visit she made to an all-girls secondary school in central London. As would be true throughout our time in the White House, Michelle reveled in such interactions, able to connect with kids of any age or background, and apparently that magic traveled well. At the school, she talked about her own childhood and the barriers she’d had to overcome, how education had always provided her a path forward. The girls—working-class, many of them of West Indian or South Asian descent—listened in rapt attention as this glamorous woman insisted that she had once been just like them. In the coming years, she’d visit with students from the school several times, including hosting a group of them at the White House. Later, an economist would study the data and conclude that Michelle’s engagement with the school had led to a notable spike in the students’ standardized test scores, suggesting that her message of aspiration and connection made a true and measurable difference. This “Michelle Effect” was something I was very familiar with—she had the same effect on me. Things like this helped us remember that our work as a First Family wasn’t solely a matter of politics and policy.

Michelle did generate her own bit of controversy, though. At a reception for the G20 leaders and their spouses with Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, she was photographed with her hand resting on Her Majesty’s shoulder—an apparent breach of royalty-commoner protocol, although the queen didn’t seem to mind, slipping her arm around Michelle in return. Also, Michelle wore a cardigan sweater over her dress during our private meeting with the queen, sending Fleet Street into a horrified tizzy.

“You should have taken my suggestion and worn one of those little hats,” I told her the next morning. “And a little matching handbag!”

She smiled and kissed me on the cheek. “And I hope you enjoy sleeping on a couch when you get home,” she said brightly. “The White House has so many to choose from!”

THE NEXT FIVE DAYS were a whirlwind—a NATO summit in Baden-Baden, Germany, and Strasbourg, France; meetings and speeches in the Czech Republic and Turkey; and an unannounced visit to Iraq, where—in addition to thanking a raucous assembly of U.S. troops for their courage and sacrifice—I consulted with Prime Minister Maliki about our withdrawal plans and Iraq’s continued transition to parliamentary governance.

By the end of the trip I had every reason to feel pretty good. Across the board, we had successfully advanced the U.S. agenda. There had been no major pratfalls on my part. Everyone on my foreign policy team, from cabinet members like Geithner and Gates to the most junior member of the advance staff, had done outstanding work. And far from shying away from association with the United States, the countries we visited seemed hungry for our leadership.

Still, the trip provided sobering evidence of just how much of my first term was going to be spent not on new initiatives but on putting out fires that predated my presidency. At the NATO summit, for instance, we were able to secure alliance support for our Af-Pak strategy—but only after listening to European leaders emphasize how sharply their publics had turned against military cooperation with the United States following the Iraq invasion, and how difficult it was going to be for them to muster political support for additional troops. NATO’s central and Eastern European members had also been unnerved by the Bush administration’s tepid reaction to Russia’s invasion of Georgia and questioned whether the alliance could be counted on to defend them against similar Russian aggression. They had a point: Before the summit, I’d been surprised to learn that NATO lacked the plans or rapid-response capabilities to come to the defense of every ally. It was just one more example of a dirty little secret I was discovering as president, the same thing I’d learned during our Afghanistan review, the same thing the world had learned following the invasion of Iraq: For all their tough talk, Bush administration hawks like Cheney and Rumsfeld had been surprisingly bad at backing up their rhetoric with coherent, effective strategies. Or as Denis McDonough more colorfully put it, “Open any White House drawer and you’ll find another turd sandwich.”

I did what I could to defuse the central European issue by proposing that NATO develop individualized defense plans for each of its members and by declaring that when it came to our mutual defense obligations, we should make no distinction between junior and senior members of the alliance. This was going to mean more work for our overstretched staff and military, but I tried not to let it raise my blood pressure too much. I reminded myself that every president felt saddled with the previous administration’s choices and mistakes, that 90 percent of the job was navigating inherited problems and unanticipated crises. Only if you did that well enough, with discipline and purpose, did you get a real shot at shaping the future.

What did have me worried by the end of the trip was less a particular issue than an overall impression: the sense that for a variety of reasons—some of our own making, some beyond our control—the hopeful tide of democratization, liberalization, and integration that had swept the globe after the end of the Cold War was beginning to recede. Older, darker forces were gathering strength, and the stresses brought about by a prolonged economic downturn were likely to make things worse.

Before the financial crisis, for example, Turkey had appeared to be a nation on the upswing, a case study in globalization’s positive effects on emerging economies. Despite a history of political instability and military coups, the majority-Muslim country had been largely aligned with the West since the 1950s, maintaining NATO membership, regular elections, a market-based system, and a secular constitution that enshrined modern principles like equal rights for women. When its current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his Justice and Development Party had swept into power in 2002–2003, touting populist and often overtly Islamic appeals, it had unsettled Turkey’s secular, military-dominated political elite. Erdogan’s vocal sympathy for both the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in their fight for an independent Palestinian state, in particular, had also made Washington and Tel Aviv nervous. And yet, Erdogan’s government thus far had abided by Turkey’s constitution, met its NATO obligations, and effectively managed the economy, even initiating a series of modest reforms with the hope of qualifying for E.U. membership. Some observers suggested that Erdogan might offer a model of moderate, modern, and pluralistic political Islam and an alternative to the autocracies, theocracies, and extremist movements that characterized the region.

In a speech before the Turkish parliament and a town hall meeting with Istanbul college students, I tried to echo such optimism. But because of my conversations with Erdogan, I had my doubts. During the NATO summit, Erdogan had instructed his team to block the appointment of highly regarded Danish prime minister Anders Rasmussen as the organization’s new secretary-general—not because he thought Rasmussen was unqualified but because Rasmussen’s government had declined to act on Turkey’s demand that it censor the 2005 publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper. European appeals about freedom of the press had left Erdogan unmoved, and he had relented only after I’d promised that Rasmussen would have a Turkish deputy and had convinced him that my upcoming visit—and U.S. public opinion of Turkey—would be adversely affected if Rasmussen’s appointment didn’t go through.

This set a pattern for the next eight years. Mutual self-interest would dictate that Erdogan and I develop a working relationship. Turkey looked to the United States for support of its E.U. bid, as well as military and intelligence assistance in fighting Kurdish separatists who’d been emboldened by the fall of Saddam Hussein. We, meanwhile, needed Turkey’s cooperation to combat terrorism and stabilize Iraq. Personally, I found the prime minister to be cordial and generally responsive to my requests. But whenever I listened to him speak, his tall frame slightly stooped, his voice a forceful staccato that rose an octave in response to various grievances or perceived slights, I got the strong impression that his commitment to democracy and the rule of law might last only as long as it preserved his own power.

My questions about the durability of democratic values weren’t restricted to Turkey. During my stop in Prague, E.U. officials had expressed alarm about the rise of far-right parties across Europe and how the economic crisis was causing an uptick in nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and skepticism about integration. The sitting Czech president, Václav Klaus, to whom I made a short courtesy visit, embodied some of these trends. A vocal “Eurosceptic” who’d been in office since 2003, he was both ardently pro–free market and an admirer of Vladimir Putin’s. And although we tried to keep things light during our conversation, what I knew of his public record—he had supported efforts to censor Czech television, was dismissive of gay and lesbian rights, and was a notorious climate change denier—didn’t leave me particularly hopeful about political trends in central Europe.

It was hard to tell how lasting these trends would be. I told myself it was the nature of democracies—including America’s—to swing between periods of progressive change and conservative retrenchment. In fact, what was striking was how easily Klaus would have fit in with the Republican Senate caucus back home, just as I could readily picture Erdogan as a local power broker on the Chicago City Council. Whether this was a source of comfort or concern, I couldn’t decide.

I HAD NOT, however, come to Prague to assess the state of democracy. Instead, we had scheduled my one big public speech of the trip to lay out a top foreign policy initiative: the reduction and ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons. I’d worked on the issue since my election to the Senate four years earlier, and while there were risks promoting what many considered a utopian quest, I told my team that in some ways that was the point; even modest progress on the issue required a bold and overarching vision. If I hoped to pass one thing on to Malia and Sasha, it was freedom from the possibility of a human-made apocalypse.

I had a second, more practical reason for focusing on the nuclear issue in a way that would make headlines across Europe: We needed to find a means to prevent Iran and North Korea from advancing their nuclear programs. (The day before the speech, in fact, North Korea had launched a long-range rocket into the Pacific, just to get our attention.) It was time to ramp up international pressure on both countries, including with enforceable economic sanctions; and I knew this would be a whole lot easier to accomplish if I could show that the United States was interested in not just restarting global momentum on disarmament but also actively reducing its own nuclear stockpile.

By the morning of the speech, I was satisfied that we had framed the nuclear issue with enough concrete, achievable proposals to keep me from sounding hopelessly quixotic. The day was clear and the setting spectacular, a town square with the ancient Prague Castle—once home to Bohemian kings and Holy Roman emperors—looming in the background. As the Beast wended its way through the city’s narrow and uneven streets, we passed some of the thousands who were gathering to hear the speech. There were people of all ages, but mostly I saw young Czechs, dressed in jeans, sweaters, and scarves, bundled up against a crisp spring wind, their faces flushed and expectant. It was crowds like this, I thought, that had been scattered by Soviet tanks at the end of the 1968 Prague Spring; and it was on these same streets just twenty-one years later, in 1989, that even bigger crowds of peaceful protesters had, against all odds, brought an end to Communist rule.

I had been in law school in 1989. I recalled sitting alone in my basement apartment a few miles from Harvard Square, glued to my secondhand TV set as I watched what would come to be known as the Velvet Revolution unfold. I remember being riveted by those protests and hugely inspired. It was the same feeling I’d had earlier in the year, seeing that solitary figure facing down tanks in Tiananmen Square, the same inspiration I felt whenever I watched grainy footage of Freedom Riders or John Lewis and his fellow civil rights soldiers marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. To see ordinary people sloughing off fear and habit to act on their deepest beliefs, to see young people risking everything just to have a say in their own lives, to try to strip the world of the old cruelties, hierarchies, divisions, falsehoods, and injustices that cramped the human spirit—that, I had realized, was what I believed in and longed to be a part of.

That night, I had been unable to sleep. Rather than reading my casebooks for class the next day, I had written in my journal deep into the night, my brain bursting with urgent, half-formed thoughts, uncertain of what my role might be in this great global struggle but knowing even then that the practice of law would be no more than a way station for me, that my heart would take me elsewhere.

It felt like a long time ago. And yet looking out from the backseat of the presidential limousine, preparing to deliver an address that would be broadcast around the world, I realized there was a direct if wholly improbable line between that moment and this one. I was the product of that young man’s dreams; and as we pulled up to the makeshift holding area behind a wide stage, a part of me imagined myself not as the politician I had become but as one of those young people in the crowd, uncompromised by power, unencumbered by the need to accommodate men like Erdogan and Klaus, obliged only to make common cause with those chasing after a new and better world.

After the speech, I had a chance to visit with Václav Havel, the playwright and former dissident who had been president of the Czech Republic for two terms, finishing in 2003. A participant in the Prague Spring, he’d been blacklisted after the Soviet occupation, had his works banned, and been repeatedly jailed for his political activities. Havel, as much as anyone, had given moral voice to the grassroots democracy movements that had brought the Soviet era to an end. Along with Nelson Mandela and a handful of other living statesmen, he’d also been a distant role model for me. I’d read his essays while in law school. Watching him maintain his moral compass even after his side had won power and he’d assumed the presidency had helped convince me that it was possible to enter politics and come out with your soul intact.

Our meeting was brief, a victim to my schedule. Havel was in his early seventies but looked younger, with an unassuming manner, a warm, craggy face, rusty-blond hair, and a trim mustache. After posing for pictures and addressing the assembled press, we settled into a conference room, where, with the help of his personal translator, we spoke for forty-five minutes or so about the financial crisis, Russia, and the future of Europe. He was concerned that the United States might somehow believe that the problems of Europe were solved when in fact, throughout the former Soviet satellites, the commitment to democracy was still fragile. As memories of the old order faded, and leaders like him who had forged close relationships with America passed from the scene, the dangers of a resurgent illiberalism were real.

“In some ways, the Soviets simplified who the enemy was,” Havel said. “Today, autocrats are more sophisticated. They stand for election while slowly undermining the institutions that make democracy possible. They champion free markets while engaging in the same corruption, cronyism, and exploitation as existed in the past.” He confirmed that the economic crisis was strengthening the forces of nationalism and populist extremism across the continent, and although he agreed with my strategy to reengage Russia, he cautioned that the annexation of Georgian territory was just the most overt example of Putin’s efforts to intimidate and interfere throughout the region. “Without attention from the U.S.,” he said, “freedom here and across Europe will wither.”

Our time was up. I thanked Havel for his advice and assured him that America would not falter in promoting democratic values. He smiled and told me he hoped he had not added to my burdens.

“You’ve been cursed with people’s high expectations,” he said, shaking my hand. “Because it means they are also easily disappointed. It’s something I’m familiar with. I fear it can be a trap.”

SEVEN DAYS AFTER leaving Washington, my team climbed back onto Air Force One, worn out and ready to return home. I was in the plane’s front cabin, about to catch up on some sleep, when Jim Jones and Tom Donilon walked in to brief me on a developing situation involving an issue I’d never been asked about during the campaign.


“Pirates, Mr. President,” Jones said. “Off the coast of Somalia. They boarded a cargo ship captained by an American and appear to be holding the crew hostage.”

This problem wasn’t new. For decades, Somalia had been a failed state, a country on the Horn of Africa carved up and shared uneasily by various warlords, clans, and, more recently, a vicious terrorist organization called al-Shabaab. Without the benefit of a functioning economy, gangs of jobless young men equipped with motorized skiffs, AK-47s, and makeshift ladders had taken to boarding commercial vessels traveling the busy shipping route connecting Asia to the West via the Suez Canal and holding them for ransom. This was the first time an American-flagged ship was involved. We had no indication that the four Somalis had harmed any members of the twenty-person crew, but Secretary Gates had ordered the navy destroyer USS Bainbridge and the frigate USS Halyburton to the area, and they were expected to have the hijacked vessel within their sights by the time we landed in Washington.

“We’ll wake you, sir, if there are further developments,” Jones said.

“Got it,” I said, feeling the weariness I’d staved off over the past few days starting to settle in my bones. “Also wake me if the locusts come,” I said. “Or the plague.”

“Sir?” Jones paused.

“Just a joke, Jim. Good night.”




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