Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Building Bridges

"I am personally committed to a new chapter of American engagement," Barack Obama told students Tuesday in Istanbul, Turkey. "The world will be what you make of it," he said, "You can choose to build new bridges instead of building new walls."

From London to Strasbourg, from Prague to Ankara and Istanbul, President Obama leveraged his enormous personal popularity to connect with the people, especially the younger generation. He did so with civility and humility. "America, like every other nation," he told the Turkish students, "has made mistakes and has its flaws. But for more than two centuries we have strived at great cost and sacrifice to form a more perfect union."

One of the president's goals on this trip was to begin rebuilding frayed international relations with pragmatism, honesty and humility. In London, Obama said America accepted responsibility for its role in creating today's world economic crisis, which was a refreshing admission to leaders of the Group of 20 nations. While their agreement to commit more than $1.2 to the International Monetary Fund to help revive the world economy was short of what America was hoping for, it was a step in the right direction. So was a meeting in London with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, which opened the door to new strategic arms-reduction talks. In a meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Obama agreed to visit China later this year.

Obama emphasized the importance of listening throughout this trip. "The United States came here to listen, to learn, and to lead," he said in Strasbourg, "because all of us have a responsibility to do our parts." He stressed partnership and common purpose. "There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive," he continued, "But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual but can also be insidious." He then concluded, "America can't meet our global challenges alone; nor can Europe meet them without America."

Nonetheless, an expanded military role for NATO in Afghanistan was a tricky subject politically because America's two wars are so unpopular with the public throughout much of the world. So it was no surprise that NATO support of Obama's planned military buildup there was tepid. But Obama is known for "dreaming big dreams." From Prague he called for an end to nuclear proliferation and a world free of nuclear weapons. As first steps he announced America's willingness to negotiate a reduction in nuclear weapons, which would make it easier to confront Iran and North Korea on the subject.

At all times President Obama seemed pragmatic and realistic. "Agreement will almost never be easy, and results won't always come quickly. But I am committed to respecting different points of view, and to forging a consensus instead of dictating our terms."

President Obama's final stop was a surprise visit to troops in Baghdad, Iraq. To rousing ovations from several hundred American soldiers, President Obama called on the Iraqi government to take more responsibility for its own security.

Certainly Obama's trip was a public relations success for America. And it was a new beginning from a policy standpoint. Of course, a lot of uncertainty lies ahead, especially in the global economy. And everyone wants to be nice to the new kid on the block. But today there seems to be more good will and hope around the world.

President Barack Obama is a builder of bridges.

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