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.

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

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.

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."

Xenia Dormandy, who served in the US government and now works for Chatham House, a British think tank, says the visit highlighted a marked change in tone. "Obama talks about mutual values and how they should guide our policy. The language of 'interests' has gone," she says. "The idea of supporting rather than leading change is a hugely different theme for the US."

Obama stressed these mutual values as he reaffirmed the "special relationship" between the United States and Britain. In the past, Obama has been criticized for being the least Anglophile of all US presidents. So the extent to which he affirmed the "special relationship," calling it not just special but "essential," was a striking feature of the visit.

It suggests a maturing of the relationship, says Stephanie Carvin, a lecturer in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. " 'Special' is an emotional word, but 'essential' makes the relationship sound practical," she says. "In the past there's been this worry that Obama is more interested in the Pacific, but I think this indicates that we don't have to be concerned about that anymore."

And if the British continue to fret about the state of this relationship, they should take heart from the knowledge that a strong bond between the two countries is important to the US, too, because "it's one less area of the world that the US has to worry about," says Ms. Carvin.

Beyond the rhetoric, Obama and Mr. Cameron announced there would be increased cooperation between the two nations in six key areas, including security, education, and cyberspace.

"There's a lot of work being done to bring the two countries closer strategically," says Ms. Dormandy. "This visit sets a new bar for the bilateral relationship away from the semantics, away from the superficiality of the idea of a special relationship, and away from the doubts over whether Obama likes Europe anymore. This takes it to a new level."

Legendary rapport with queen

And this time around, Obama seemed more genuinely engaged with Britain than before. Some of that is about personal relationships, of course. His rapport with the queen is fast gaining legendary status, and there was considerable camaraderie on display between Obama and Cameron, not least as they flipped burgers at a barbecue in honor of wounded military service personnel.

At the state banquet at Buck­ing­ham Palace, Obama also spoke of his gratitude for the support Britain had shown the US in the past. Such solidarity would be just as important in the future, he told Parliament the following day.

"Even as more nations take on the responsibilities of global leadership," he said, "our alliance will remain indispensable to the goal of a century that is more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just."

And despite the new sensitive approach to foreign affairs, he insisted that the US and Britain together had a key role to play in the world. "As millions are still denied their basic human rights, we are the nations most willing to stand up for the values of tolerance and self-determination that lead to peace and dignity."

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