To learn and to lead, Obama roadtests new style
Barack Obama is billing himself as the US president which Europe seems to have long desired, one who comes not to lecture, but to “listen, to learn and to lead”. In five days and three summits in Britain, France, Germany and the Czech Republic, Obama’s political message was unmistakable: the White House and the oldest and somewhat battered US alliances are under new management.world Updated: Apr 06, 2009 09:33 IST
Barack Obama is billing himself as the US president which Europe seems to have long desired, one who comes not to lecture, but to “listen, to learn and to lead”.
In five days and three summits in Britain, France, Germany and the Czech Republic, Obama’s political message was unmistakable: the White House and the oldest and somewhat battered US alliances are under new management.
In contrast to the days in George W. Bush’s first term when some angry Americans even refused to call their fries French after an Iraq war spat, Obama’s watchwords were consult, engage and common purpose.
“I think there is a basic message across Europe which should resonate,” said Sean Kay, professor of international relations at Ohio Wesleyan University.
“That is, America is in a position now where it is going to lead but lead by example, and consultation and engagement.”
Outside stuffy G20, NATO and European Union summits, Obama and wife Michelle took the continent by storm, whipping up gushing media coverage, rapturous crowds and a sprinkling dose of charisma in grim economic times.
It may be premature to judge whether Obama’s tour advanced his efforts to revive the global economy and finally win the war in Afghanistan -- two of his key goals.
Cynics could point out Obama did not get a huge multinational stimulus efforts out the G20 economic summit nor long-term commitments of troops for Afghanistan from NATO allies.
But the new US leader put down a series of pointers for future visits.
He roadtested an attempt to engage the people of Europe -- not just through the dry slog of diplomacy -- but with slick campaign tools which built the deepest grass roots movement in US history.
In a town-hall campaign-style meeting in Strasbourg, press conferences in Britain and France which left foreign journalists clapping and by drenching his host leaders in praise, Obama clearly had a political agenda.
He seemed keen to buck up beleaguered counterparts like Britain’s Gordon Brown, find a way to gently channel the more energetic, like French President Nicolas Sarkozy and to build trust with the more formal, like Germany’s Angela Merkel.
“He was reaching out to Sarkozy, he was very good with Merkel as well,” said Karen Donfried of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
“In a sense, he is helping them build up political will and public support in their countries to enable them to start doing some of these things,” Donfried said.
Obama’s visit to western and central Europe, which ended when he flew off Sunday to Turkey, will also leave his hosts pondering a new geopolitical landscape.
The administration made clear it is not simply seeking better friendships for their own sake, but expects Europe to raise its game, especially relating to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.
“The United States came here to listen, to learn and to lead because all of us have a responsibility to do our parts,” said Obama as the NATO summit in Strasbourg wrapped up on Saturday.
“America can’t meet our global challenges alone; nor can Europe meet them without America.”
White House aides said privately that the new era of consultation and reaching out, meant Europe now had a heightened responsibility to respond to US entreaties for more help on issues like Afghanistan.
Obama’s visit to G20 talks in Britain, the NATO summit in Germany and France and an EU-US summit in Prague on Sunday showed the new president was a fast learner in the wiles of international summitry.
The new president also helped unpick two damaging disputes which threatened to tarnish the G20 talks in London, over tax havens, and the NATO summit over Turkey’s anger at future secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
In London, he forged first ties with Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev who later called him a “comrade” -- a good omen for future nuclear arms reduction talks, and China’s President Hu Jintao.
Obama also took care to protect his flank at home, frequently referencing the might of the United States, despite its current economic woes and talking about how he was proud of his country.
Next week, the euphoria of his trip will be but a memory, and the president will go back to the grim slog of saving the US economy.