U.S. President Barack Obama campaigned on a platform of “change.” Change was plainly visible throughout his first overseas trip as president. Perhaps the most compelling sign of change was not of his doing: Throughout the weeklong tour of Europe, Mr. Obama was greeted with an enthusiasm that posed a stark contrast to the reception of his predecessor and should put to rest any thoughts about the erosion of U.S. standing in the world. Go beyond the atmospherics, however, and the change is a little more difficult to discern. While Mr. Obama has promised a different foreign policy, his nation’s interests and the problems he and other leaders face remain the same.

The hype surrounding Mr. Obama was evident throughout his first stop, the Group of 20 meeting in London. The president’s schedule overflowed with bilateral meetings with heads of state. Mr. Obama had tete-a-tetes with his host, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Chinese President Hu Jintao, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, among others. His public appearances, like those of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her recent visit to Asia, were greeted by rapturous crowds.

In all those sessions, Mr. Obama sent the same message. The United States was eager to work with partners to tackle the key problems that the world faces. Speaking to the European Parliament, he explained that “I’ve come to Europe this week to renew our partnership, one in which America listens and learns from our friends and allies, but where our friends and allies bear their share of the burden.” After meeting with Mr. Brown, he added, “I came here to put forward our ideas, but I also came here to listen, and not to lecture.” Mr. Obama acknowledged the resentments that have allowed the trans-Atlantic relationship to drift. But he insisted that both sides are at fault and both need to repair the damage.

Several of the events yielded fruit. After meeting Mr. Medvedev, the two men announced that they had agreed to recommence strategic arms reduction talks and aim to conclude a legally verifiable treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by July. That agreement provided the cornerstone of Mr. Obama’s proposal to work toward a nuclear-free world, outlined in his speech in Prague. Significantly, the president framed that imperative in moral as well as strategic terms. He embraced the responsibility of the U.S., along with other nuclear weapons states to lead that march.

In Turkey, the president sought to redefine U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Repeating a message that his predecessor tried — and failed — to deliver, he said that “the United States is not at war with Islam. In fact, our partnership with the Muslim world is critical in rolling back a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject.” Equally — if not more — important was his attempt to reframe relations with the Islamic community. “America’s relationship with the Muslim world cannot and will not be based on opposition to al-Qaida. . . . We seek broad engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, bridge misunderstanding, and seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree.”

This is public diplomacy at its best. Unfortunately, it is no substitute for problem solving. The challenges that Mr. Obama faces are daunting. Most immediately, there is the economic crisis. The G20 meeting is cited by some as the beginning of a new era in international economic decision-making, but that depends on the group making decisions and enforcing them. The declaration from the London summit could have just as easily been produced by the Group of Seven. Absent concrete steps to remedy the problem, this moment will pass and the G20 will be discredited.

Similarly, at the NATO summit, Mr. Obama’s fine words did little to turn the minds of Europeans wary of getting more deeply involved in Afghanistan. There were no commitments of new forces, and the country is still desperate for funds. Words of partnership and shared interests are nice; actions define relationships, however.

And if there were any need for a reminder of how weak words are, no matter how finely delivered, there was North Korea’s missile launch. While underscoring the importance of Mr. Obama’s call for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, Pyongyang’s recalcitrance showed how intractable that problem is.

It also prompted criticism that the president was naive. They insist his dream of a nuclear-free world is fantastic and dangerous. Those critics also charge the president with mistaking his rhetoric for the hard choices needed to defend his country. But Mr. Obama has been clear that he understands the need for strong defense capabilities. The march toward a nuclear-free world will be matched by the maintenance of a strong defense and deterrent. He is prepared to engage America’s adversaries but that does not mean compromising on vital interests. Mr. Obama knows that true leadership inspires others to join up to a cause; they cannot be forced into line. That requires both words and deeds. Mr. Obama seems to have gotten off to a good start.

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