by Joshua H. Liberatore
A whirlwind eight-day, six-nation trip overseas gave POTUS a chance to reintroduce himself on the world stage, galvanize key strategic relationships, and engage in some delicate negotiations in the post-Bush era of foreign policy, après le divorce, so to speak. As has been reported, the trip was something of a personal triumph. POTUS proved to be a very popular, sought-after, and photogenic visitor to the Continent, and was warmly received in Turkey – fulfilling a campaign promise to stage a major policy speech in the Muslim world – where he met with students, members of the Grand National Assembly, and heads of state.
Politically, the outcomes were more mixed. POTUS didn’t persuade European governments to increase stimulus spending (many had already pushed the limits of national budgets and political will); he wasn’t able to augment the number of non-American combat troops in Afghanistan (some new support and training troops were pledged); he failed to recruit European detention facilities to accommodate soon-to-be displaced Guantánamo “terror suspects” (France accepted one prisoner). But all told, POTUS “represented,” as the slang term has it. And in doing so, he put a dignified face on America’s image abroad.
What stood out from our perspective were not the news-worthy points rehearsed above, however, but the subtler moments of cultural exchange, those je ne sais quoi moments of recognition that POTUS wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and not even in Chicago. Moments when he showed his humanity through those small, forgivable blunders familiar to novice travelers and untried expats the world over. His education began in London:
I’m going to call on one foreigner – [laughter] – actually, I’m the foreigner. That’s why I smiled. One correspondent not from America, and then I will . . .
[Many reporters began speaking at the same time.]
We’re not doing bidding here. [Laughter] Come on. But I also want to make sure that I’m not showing gender bias. So this young lady right here; not you, sir, I’m sorry. (April 2, 2009)
POTUS was careful to follow his usual discipline in taking questions, alternating “boy-girl-boy-girl,” as he likes to say, now making careful extra efforts to integrate unfamiliar journalists from the Other Side, from publications not read, programs not viewed, by Americans. This involved some degree of admirable risk and gameliness on his part, as became evident when POTUS called on Rui Chenggang of China’s state-owned Central Television, whose first question was proffered, “on behalf of China”:
Q. First of all, you’ve had a very fruitful meeting with our President. And during the Clinton administration, U.S.-China relationship were characterized, in Clinton’s words, “strategic, constructive partnership.” During the Bush era, it was – the catchphrase was quote-unquote, “stakeholder” – the Bush administration expects China to become a responsible stakeholder in international affairs. Have you come up with a catchphrase of your own? And certainly, it is not the G-2, is it?
My second question is on behalf of the world. Politics is very local, even though we’ve been talking about global solution, as indicated by your recent preference over American journalists and British, which is okay. [Laughter] How can you make sure that you will do whatever you can so that that local politics will not trump or negatively affect good international economics? Thank you, Mr. President.
That was a lot for POTUS to respond to in the absence of prepared notes: to characterize the U.S.-China relationship within “the new era of responsibility” and to assure a watching world that the traditional, Americo-Eurocentric status quo of previous administrations was open to revision. Actually, Rui seemed to pose the same question in two different ways. POTUS did his level best:
Well, those are excellent questions. On the first question, your American counterparts will tell you I’m terrible with those little catchphrases and sound bites. So I haven’t come up with anything catchy yet, but if you have any suggestions, let me know. [Laughter] I’ll be happy to use them.
In terms of local politics, look, I’m the President of the United States. I’m not the president of China; I’m not the president of Japan; I’m not the president of the other participants here. And so I have a direct responsibility to my constituents to make their lives better. That’s why they put me in there. That accounts for some of the questions here about how concretely does me being here help them find a job, pay for their home, send their kids to college, live what we call the American Dream. And I will be judged by my effectiveness in meeting their needs and concerns. (April 2, 2009)
Although it’s not likely POTUS will call on reporters from CCTV again anytime soon, the questions from friendly “Brits” – as POTUS has twice referred to them, somewhat ill-advisedly – did not prove to be much easier. In Strasbourg, Edward Luce from The Financial Times phrased the issue more politely perhaps, but equally pointedly: Did POTUS subscribe to the belief in American exceptionalism “that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world”?
I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I am enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.
And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality that, though imperfect, are exceptional. (April 4, 2009)
An honest beginning indeed, and one that had no reason not to play well back home in the Heartland. Having warmed up with some typical bromides, however, POTUS then added some nuance to his views:
Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise, and that includes us.
And 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 create partnerships because we can’t solve these problems alone. (April 4, 2009)
And although punctuating this last sentence offered us opportunity for some healthy editorial debate – triumphantly for once, I persuaded my superior that POTUS’s relative clause-as-subject was flowery and legalistic perhaps, but also perfectly comprehensible and cogent – the significance of its content was lost on no one. Unlike his predecessor, POTUS appears to be aware of the consummate folly in going it alone. As for listening – which POTUS promised, repeatedly during the trip, to do – and learning from other ways, other notions, POTUS tried to lead by example. During the first of two “town halls” his team arranged, POTUS received a language lesson from a German university student in Strasbourg.
Q. Thank you. Hi, I’m Ines, also from Heidelberg, and I’m total European. [Laughter] And first of all, I wanted to tell you that your name in Hungarian means “peach,” if you . . .
The President. Peach?
The President. Oh, okay. Well, how about that. I did not know that.
Q. Yes, now you know it. And we wanted to know if you – did you ever regret to have run for Presidency till now? I mean, well, did you ever ask yourself, am I sure to manage? (April 3, 2009)
POTUS had begun the town hall “meeting” by offering a laudatory summary of Strasbourg’s long history as the site of European complexity, frequent conflict, and recent unity, but his notes hadn’t said anything about Hungarian, much less how to deal with this fraulein‘s gorgeous non sequitur. Europe’s so confusing. Later, at the formal press conference, also in Strasbourg, POTUS offered a language lesson of his own to Sonja Sagmeister from the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, who asked for POTUS’s impression of his European peers.
It was also interesting to see that political interaction in Europe is not that different from the United States Senate. There’s a lot of – I don’t know what the term is in Austrian – wheeling and dealing – and, you know, people are pursuing their interests, and everybody has their own particular issues and their own particular politics. (April 4, 2009)
POTUS’s modest gaffe – Austrians speak German (though linguists and ultranationalists might debate it) – caused an unkind and disproportionate stir in the blogosphere, but Ms. Sagmeister didn’t seem to mind (after all, she was a public policy fellow at Duke). And not unlike SUVs and genetically modified foods, the American “town hall” format proved a difficult export to push through customs, the audience at times seeming unsure of their role and reticent to applaud on cue. Moreover, “foreign” journalists asked tough questions. Despite these minor hiccups, like many exchange students venturing wide-eyed into the European wilderness, POTUS survived by dint his of natural charm and fundamental decency. What more can we ask?