Obama's speech to British Parliament praised for strength, humility

Obama is only the fourth foreign dignitary to address Parliament at Westminster Hall since World War II. He received a standing ovation for his speech on the US-Europe alliance.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama addresses the British Parliament at Westminster Hall in London, on Wednesday, May 25.

In a historic address to the British Parliament today, President Obama insisted that even while a new world order was being shaped, the US, Britain, and their allies would continue to play an essential role in bringing peace and prosperity to the world.

“As millions are still denied their basic human rights because of who they are, or what they believe, or the kind of government they live under, we are the nations most willing to stand up for the values of tolerance and self-determination that lead to peace and dignity,” he said, adding that the alliance between the US and Europe would continue to shape a world “in which new nations could emerge and individuals could thrive."

The wide-ranging speech, which also focused on the economy, nuclear proliferation, and the importance of education, received a standing ovation from Parliament and was praised for its statesmanlike themes and tones.

“He recognized the strength of the past but stressed the need to turn the values upheld by Anglo-American relations in their origins into universal values," says James Ellison, of the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London. "This was a speech of interdependence and multilateralism. Obama’s gone a long way today to extend America’s history beyond Bush.

“I can’t think of an American president making such a sensitive speech in Europe for some time,” he adds, noting that it struck the right balance between strength and humility.

The speech marked the first time an American president had addressed Parliament in the historic setting of Westminster Hall, which has played a central role in the nation's government for 900 years. Only three other foreign dignitaries have been accorded this honor since World War II: Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Obama rejected the notion that the emergence of new superpowers made the alliance any less relevant. While China, India, Brazil and other nations take on the responsibilities of global leadership, US-Europe ties would remain “indispensable to the goal of a century that is more peaceful, more prosperous and more just,” he said.

But he promised a more subtle approach to foreign affairs in future, hinting at the stance the US has already taken on Libya. “We will proceed with humility, and the knowledge that we cannot dictate outcomes abroad. Ultimately, freedom must be won by the people themselves, not imposed from without. But we can and must stand with those who so struggle.”

At a press conference held jointly with Prime Minister David Cameron earlier in the day, Obama spoke of winning the war in Libya as a “slow steady process.”

He returned to the theme of North Africa and the Middle East in his address to Parliament, stressing that the US and Britain supported those struggling for democracy, but implying that support did not have to mean military intervention.

“We must show that we will back up our words with deeds,” he said. “That means investing in the future of those nations that transition to democracy, starting with Tunisia and Egypt – by deepening ties of trade and commerce; by helping them demonstrate that freedom brings prosperity.”

He said that while many of the past decade’s problems were receding, the future would present major challenges. So while much of the speech reaffirmed the close ties between the US and Britain, the president also acknowledged that “a new chapter of shared history” would require building "new partnerships, adapting to new circumstances, and remaking ourselves to meet the demands of a new era.”

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