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Obama's Europe visit: redefined ties and a touch of 'political Beatlemania'

European leaders warmed to President Obama's emphasis on pragmatism and mutual values. Playing ping-pong and visiting Moneygall, Ireland, didn't hurt his popular image, either.

By Paul WoottonCorrespondent / May 30, 2011

President Obama addressed both houses of Parliament in Britain on Wednesday, the US president so honored.

Andy Rain/AP

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Europe always provides good photo opportunities, but the images of Barack Obama's recent visit were a publicity consultant's dream: the quaint Irish village of Moneygall, hanging out with the queen, high-fiving Prime Minister David Cameron after a game of ping-pong. The media circus lapped it up.

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As did the Irish and Britons. Thou­sands of Dubliners turned out to welcome him, thrilled by his efforts to sound Irish and his recently discovered Moneygall roots. In Britain, politicians fawned over him, hoping that some of his charisma might rub off. At Westminster, as the houses of Parliament awaited Mr. Obama's historic address, member of Parliament Tessa Jowell tweeted that the atmosphere was like "political Beatlemania."

Well before he'd moved on to France for the Group of Eight summit, Obama's European tour had already been hailed a success.

But beyond the feel-good photography and the cheerful bonhomie, there was purpose and substance to Obama's trip as well, specifically the need to redefine America's relationship with Europe in a much-changed world. That meant making a renewed commitment to the allies of old, but it also meant outlining a new approach to American foreign affairs.

He spelled out this new direction in his speech to Parliament, emphasizing a more consensual approach to policy and talking of proceeding with humility in the Middle East.

"That's not something you would have heard in the previous administration," says James Ellison, of the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London, who acknowledges that America's new multilateralism is a pragmatic response to recent global events. Libya, in particular, he suggests, demonstrates how and why US foreign policy is shifting.

"The Americans are suffering from a deficit just like the Europeans are," says Mr. Ellison. "They can't afford to overextend themselves. But they also want the Europeans to think about their defense budgets. The longer the war with Libya, the more they will be forced to think about them. What we're seeing is the Obama administration's intent to make sure that Europeans lift their weight with defense."

Clear pragmatism

America's shift in foreign policy is clearly pragmatic, given the lack of appetite at home for more conflict, but it also highlights the different values Obama has brought to the presidency. One line from his keynote address makes this clear: "Ultimately, freedom must be won by the people themselves, not imposed from without," he said. This emphasis on self-determination is a far cry from efforts in Iraq and Afghan­istan. As Ellison notes, Obama's Euro­pean visit has gone "a long way to extend America's history beyond Bush."

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