Obama's New Tone Meets Familiar Tough Challenges

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Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama exit the stage after Obama's speech at Hradcany Square near Prague Castle, on April 5, 2009.

President Obama touched down in the Czech Republic at about 6:30 p.m. Saturday, two hours ahead of schedule, raising expectations that he might opt for a night on the town. Indeed, as soon as the motorcade arrived at his downtown hotel, agents began preparing for an imminent departure to an undisclosed dinner location. But the first couple chose to stay in, opting for an early night after four grueling days on the road.

The early night, it turned out, was well advised, for at 4:30 a.m. press secretary Robert Gibbs was forced to wake the president from his slumber. North Korea had launched a long-expected test missile into the Sea of Japan, in violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution. (See TIME's photos of the Obama-Sarkozy meeting in Strasbourg)

The White House had been preparing for the launch for days. Within 90 minutes, a statement condemning the actions was released. A few hours later, Gibbs was briefing reporters, saying that Obama had already spoken with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already been dispatched to arrange an afternoon Security Council meeting to condemn the action.

The timing of the launch, just hours before a major address on ridding the world of nuclear weapons, was either fortuitous or terrible for Obama, at once highlighting the issue of proliferation and showing just how hard it will be to tame an unruly world. In his speech before a crowd of about 20,000 at the Prague Castle compound Obama opted to use the launch as a teaching moment. "Just this morning, we were reminded again of why we need a new and more rigorous approach to address this threat," he said. "This provocation underscores the need for action — not just this afternoon at the U.N. Security Council, but in our determination to prevent the spread of these weapons."

But the counterspin is also true. As Obama's trip enters its final turn, with a whirlwind tour of two Turkish metropolises, the president has found his considerable success at setting a new tone for international relations repeatedly frustrated by the harsh reality of how hard the job is. Despite new agreements for international support of the war effort in Afghanistan, victory against Al Qaeda remains a distant, difficult, long-range goal, with the military onus remaining on U.S. combat troops. Furthermore, a consensus of economic observers advise that the economic crisis, though mollified by some international confidence-building agreement, is unlikely to be solved quickly by the actions taken by the G20. (See TIME's photos of "Obama's Travels in Europe")

The complications will not end on Monday, when Obama travels to Turkey, where he will have to dance delicately around an issue he has spoken out about at home, the Armenian genocide, a tragedy that continues to be officially denied by the Turkish government and which Obama has promised to acknowledge as president.

The North Korean government, meanwhile, continues unabated in its weapons development, existing in an oddly totalitarian isolation, which produces its own reality. While the North Korean state media reported that the missile had launched a satellite into space, broadcasting "immortal revolutionary paeans" to the heavens, both Korean and U.S. monitors said that the missile had failed to release anything into orbit. "Stage one of the missile fell into the Sea of Japan/East Sea," reads an official report from the United States Northern Command. "The remaining stages along with the payload itself landed in the Pacific Ocean."

The same cannot be said for Obama's own relaunch of American foreign policy, which has been warmly received both by the European public and many of the world's leaders. The first stage is so far a success, having smoothly left the landing pad, but there is a long way yet to go.

See TIME's photos of Michelle Obama's European Fashions

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