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

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.

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."

At the same time, Shapiro noted that on the "hard edge of policy" in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where unlike some European allies Obama has not signaled a willingness to talk to the armed Islamist group Hamas, the president's policy and goals have not changed much from those of his predecessor.

"Europeans are hungry for American leadership but tired of American arrogance," Shapiro said. "And he's managing to display both."

Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, said the approach is not without risks. Obama, he said, "has embarked on a new course that projects humility and an overbearing desire to apologize for America's past behavior."

"This is a high-risk strategy that could well backfire," Gardiner said. "There's a real danger that the United States will be seen as a soft touch, both by European partners as well as by America's biggest enemies, from al-Qaeda to the mullahs of Tehran."

The outreach has not yielded the results Obama has sought in some important areas.

The administration failed to persuade European leaders to begin a new round of fiscal stimulus spending. France ruled out additional combat troop deployments to Afghanistan, and Germany has been noncommittal on what new support it would offer there. Seeking assistance in relocating Guantanamo detainees, Obama has secured help only from France, which said it will take one Algerian held there.

Obama's tone and demeanor, however, have been welcomed effusively.

In a joint appearance here, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said, "It feels really good to work with a U.S. president . . . who understands that the world doesn't boil down to simply American frontiers and borders."

In his town hall meeting here, Obama said: "In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive."

Within the Bush administration, the Pentagon and the State Department disagreed over whether the European Union should be seen as a potential economic and even military rival. Then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld divided the continent into "old Europe" -- France and Germany, specifically -- and the Eastern European countries more supportive of U.S. policy in Iraq.

"That debate has now been effectively resolved in favor of a federal Europe," Gardiner said. "The new administration seems to value its ties to continental Europe as much as its traditional relationship with the United Kingdom. And this is a major change."

Obama's approach to nuclear arms also parts from the policy of Bush administration, which withdrew in 2002 from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. He has framed the need for a new arms-control pact around the threat of proliferation in the post-9/11 era, saying that "the spread of nuclear weapons or the theft of nuclear material could lead to the extermination of any city on the planet."

He intends to use his Sunday speech in Prague to "lay out an agenda to seek the goal of a world without nuclear weapons."

The new American humility Obama is projecting extends beyond national security. "We just emerged from an era marked by irresponsibility," he said here, urging his audience not to "choose the path of selfishness or apathy, of blame or division."

He acknowledged here that pollution from cars in Boston is melting the polar ice caps and that the United States bears the brunt of responsibility for climate change. During his news conference in London, Obama went as far as to say that "if China and India, with their populations, had the same energy usage as the average American, then we would have all melted by now."

He has also said the United States is "certainly" to blame for the global economic downturn. "What's difficult to imagine is that we didn't act sooner," he told 4,500 students assembled in a sports arena here.

Senior administration officials embraced the idea that Obama's approach to world affairs will be a pragmatic one.

"It does make it easier if the message we're sending is, 'We don't agree on everything, but I want to work with you and work issues through and make progress on things on which we have common interest,' " said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama. "You're going to get a better response than if you come in and simply lecture."

Wilson reported from Washington.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company