UPDATE: I have corrected errors in this post in a followup post here.
There was a promise in the candidacy of Barack Obama, sometimes explicit but more often implicit: The African-American with the funny name and the Kenyan father, the guy who had lived as a child in Indonesia, would be able to remake the global foreign policy conversation. He would move it away from the vision of George W. Bush and John McCain.
Beyond the specific debates about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the divide was largely one of perspective. Like Bush, McCain believed in something called “American exceptionalism,” which separated the U.S. from the rest of the world, in moral standing, in military power, in economic might, and in the ability to influence other nations. “We’re the only nation I know in the world that really is deeply concerned about adhering to the principle that all of us are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain rights,” McCain said during the campaign.
Obama came at the issues of foreign policy from an entirely different direction. While he said his first role as president would be to protect and improve the United States, he placed his country in a larger framework of nations, not above the framework. While McCain spoke about U.S. leadership (what “we did for Europe after World War II”), Obama spoke about collaboration, of a “new era of international cooperation,” of “rebuilding our alliances,” of rejecting “a foreign policy that lectures without listening.” “America is strongest when we act alongside strong partners,” Obama said in a major foreign policy speech last year, in reference to World War II. For McCain, that war showed how America could reshape the world. For Obama, the same conflict showed how America could work with others.
We now know that Obama was not just spinning rhetoric during the campaign. In his first trip to Europe, he is palpably embracing a striking change in the frame of reference for international discussion. Twice on Thursday, Obama was asked to respond to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s announcement that the “Washington consensus is over.” Twice, Obama essentially said the comment was not a big deal. The phrase, he said, was a “term of art” to refer to a specific economic approach. He then went on to praise the rise of other nations in relation to historic U.S. power, as evidenced by difficulties at the G20 conference.
There’s been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods. “Oh, well, last time you saw the entire international architecture being remade.” Well, if there’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that’s a — that’s an easier negotiation. (Laughter.) But that’s not the world we live in, and it shouldn’t be the world that we live in. And so that’s not a loss for America; it’s an appreciation that Europe is now rebuilt and a powerhouse. Japan is rebuilt, is a powerhouse. China, India — these are all countries on the move. And that’s good. That means there are millions of people — billions of people — who are working their way out of poverty. And over time, that potentially makes this a much more peaceful world.
It is almost impossible to imagine either Bush or McCain making such a claim on a world stage. And other leaders are taking notice. At a Friday morning press conference with Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, a former ideological ally of both McCain and Bush, made a point of referencing this new perspective. “It feels really great to work with an American president who wants to change the world,” Sarkozy said, according to the live English translation of his remarks. He then praised Obama for acknowledging that “the world does not boil down to just American frontiers and borders.”
“And that is hell of a good news for 2009,” Sarkozy concluded.
UPDATE: At a town hall this afternoon in Strasbourg, France, Obama made his campaign pitch to the entire world. “America is changing,” he said, in prepared remarks read off a teleprompter. “But it cannot be America alone that changes.” He also referred to himself by his full name, Barack Hussein Obama, in a Q and A with French and German students. His point was that Al Qaeda is not going to cease to be a problem because someone with such a name gets elected President of The United States.