STRASBOURG, FRANCE – Almost casually, Barack Obama is gliding into old Europe with a new US image, accompanied by the beaming and fashionable Michelle. He smiles broadly. He seems to enjoy, if not relish crowds, meetings, the press give-and-takes, the dinners and group photos.
But while President Obama says he is here to listen, those listening to him hear a new tone – and some new content from the American bully pulpit. If Obama won the US presidency with a message that “we are all in this together,” his eight-day visit to Europe is broadening that “we” message to the globe. He’s apparently trying to make “unity” and “inclusiveness” mean something – in back rooms negotiations at the G-20, and at the NATO summit.
It has been some time since an American president was praised for his skills at cooperation, as he was by German Chancellor Angela Merkel after the G-20. Ms. Merkel came into the meeting prepared to breath fire, according to a Bloomberg report, and left saying “The American president was especially concerned that we get good results…. He was involved in solutions to very specific problems. It was a very good, very cooperative and result-oriented cooperation.”
Globalization is often described in amoral terms, as if an interconnected world of trade and media is value-neutral. But Obama has been seeking to give moral content to the idea of globalization, saying that what is good for people in one nation is good for everyone.
The White House "we" extends east, west, north, and south. “If we get China to prosper, that is good for all of us,” he said at a town hall in Strasbourg, adding that if parents in India can send their kids to college, that helps improve life a little bit everywhere. The biggest applause line came when he warned that nuclear weapons can eradicate any city on the planet, then said he was going to Prague to negotiate an end to nuclear weapons with the Russians.
Idealism may be back, if Obama has anything to say about it, and it seems he does. At the G-20 London meeting, the US president spoke steadily about the need to think broadly and link the concerns of oneself with the concerns of others. In Strasbourg, he took aim at what he called materialism, telling students that “if you only care about yourself, what kind of car” or house you want, “your life becomes diminished,” adding that it isn’t too much to live one’s life by a credo like “What can I do for others?.... Even if it is a parent … taking care of children.”
On a continent used to hearing mostly about the war on terror from the Americans, the message is alarmingly refreshing.
He’s extended the idea of “we” into the future, by raising the importance of dealing with climate change.
Part of the new tone included some national self-critical moments. In front of the students, he said that in the past, “America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive,” about Europe and other states. But he also said it was time to move past “stereotypes” on both sides.