Today's speech was the key communication of Obama's six-day, four-nation European fence-mending (and domestic politicking) tour. The centerpiece is tomorrow's G8 meeting in Deauville, France. But today's visit to the UK was all about reassuring the Brits that they still enjoy a 'relationship' with America - though the exact nature of that relationship seems to be being redefined.
The British press and political class spends an inordinate amount of time fretting about whether their country still has a "special relationship" with the United States. In the US, this term is virtually unheard of (which should answer their question). Earlier this year the British media was sent into a tizzy when Obama said during a state visit by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people.”
But wait, the UK is supposed to be America's number one ally in the world! "It shatters the idea that Britain still has a special relationship with the US," declared the Daily Mirror. The Daily Mail wrote that the words were "evidence that Mr Obama does not cherish the special relationship." An editorial in The Telegraph wrote that the statement, "represents an extraordinary sea change in US foreign policy," adding that "such a remark is not only factually wrong but also insulting to Britain, not least coming just a few years after the French famously knifed Washington in the back over the war in Iraq."
It isn't just Britain that's been sensitive about not receiving enough attention from Obama. Last year when the American president backed out of a planned US-EU summit in Madrid there was a collective freakout by the European media, who declared that Obama was abandoning Europe. There has been a growing idea here that Obama is America's first "Pacific" president, oriented toward Asia because of his background growing up in Hawai and Indonesia. As the BBC's US corresponent Mark Mardell wrote earlier this week,
He is not an East Coast white Anglo-Saxon, like most presidents before him, who saw England as the land of the Mayflower and dreaming spires. Maybe, if you've been told the British drove nails into your grandfather's private parts because they thought he was part of a rebellion, it gives you a different perspective.It is certainly true that this administration has taken a different line toward Europe than its predecessor. While the Bush administration seemed to see Europe a 'vassal continent' that still owed loyalty to America from World War II, the Obama administration has been keen to stress its desires for Europe to assert its independence and play a stronger role in the world on its own. Obama has repeatedly asked European countries to increase their defense budgets and play a greater role in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has been more vocally supportive of the idea of a federal EU than any US administration before them, and they have not played the usual US game of playing European countries against each other. They have expressed concerns about the UK's recent anti-EU moves, such as David Cameron's decision to take the Tories out of the centre-right Europarty and instead form an anti-federalist party. The message from Obama to the UK has been something along the lines of, 'Maybe we should just be friends. I think you're a better match with that Europe gentleman next door. You know, the one in the beret'.
Obama was keen to illustrate this idea when he spoke about the Libya operation. Though the Obama administration was notoriously hesitant to participate in that military action, the process was exactly what Obama is looking for from Europe - decisive leadership. The effort was spearheaded by France and the UK, which provided leadership while the US provided the the essential military apparatus. Obama's message seems to be that he does not want the UK as a military vassal state of the United States, he wants it as one part of a strong, decisive European partner - a unified Europe that the US can work with to solve the challenges of the day.
O'Bama in Ireland
US media. I would imagine most Americans are unaware Obama is in Europe at the moment.
The president even visited the birthplace of his distant ancestor in a small village in Ireland. He drank a pint of Guiness (a gift turned down by many presidents before him) and apparently flew away with Ireland's heart in his hands. He seemed to get along swimmingly with the country's new prime minister Enda Kenny as well. But perhaps that's unsurprising. Judging by his previous speeches, Enda's a real fan!