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On European Trip, President Tries to Set a New, Pragmatic Tone

President Obama talks to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a NATO summit in Strasbourg, France. During his trip, he has acknowledged U.S. responsibility in global issues such as the recession and climate change.
President Obama talks to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton at a NATO summit in Strasbourg, France. During his trip, he has acknowledged U.S. responsibility in global issues such as the recession and climate change. (By Geert Vanden Wijngaert -- Associated Press)

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By Michael D. Shear and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 5, 2009

STRASBOURG, France, April 4 -- In four days abroad, President Obama has worked side by side with foreign leaders to stabilize the world economy while acknowledging America's role in causing the crisis. He has inaugurated a new round of strategic arms-control talks with Russia, a sharp departure from the Bush administration, which withdrew from one nuclear treaty. He has thanked NATO members for their help in Afghanistan, even though they have not done as much as he had hoped to fortify the U.S. project there.

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In international forums and town hall meetings, Obama has sought to inject the same "fierce urgency of now" into foreign affairs that he promised at home and has brought to the continent an approach his aides describe as an overdue pragmatism.

After the Group of 20 summit in London, Obama said: "We exercise our leadership best when we are listening . . . when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility and recognize that we may not always have the best answer."

As a candidate, George W. Bush promised a similar approach to the world.

"If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us; if we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll welcome us," he said during an October 2000 debate with Al Gore.

But after Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration embarked on a foreign policy that often alienated allies.

Obama pledged during his campaign to turn the page. Since taking office, he has ordered the closure of the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; reached out to Iran, isolated for years by the Bush administration; and, on this trip, turned to international organizations such as the G-20 and NATO for help on economic and national security issues.

He intends to make it easier for Cuban exiles to visit and send money to their families on the island, rolling back Bush-era restrictions in doing so. And he has embraced the European Union in a way his predecessor never did, effectively placing the continent on equal footing with the "special relationship" shared by the United States and the United Kingdom.

On Monday, he will begin a two-day swing through Turkey, taking his message to a predominantly Muslim nation and a critical bridge between Europe and the Middle East.

But beyond his actions, it is the sharp change in tone and the willingness to cast the United States as a nation that bears much of the responsibility for a raft of global woes that have been most striking in Obama's excursion.

"I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world," Obama said here Saturday when asked whether he believed in the concept of "American exceptionalism." ". . . So I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent, depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone."

Jeremy Shapiro, director of research for the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said that "the tone of the messages he is giving is a specific and intended sharp break with the past."


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