Obama: "America is changing"

STRASBOURG — It’s a new world and the world’s oldest allies want to work on it together by strengthening their relationship and finding joint solutions to the litany of common challenges confronting them: Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, the Middle East — not to mention the economy.

Peace and partnership were the resounding themes in comments by President Barack Obama and President Nicolas Sarkozy when the two leaders emerged from a closed-door meeting that kick-started the celebration of NATO’s 60th anniversary.

(Read Mildrade Cherfils' Notebook from the NATO summit.)

But diplomacy was also behind both of their direct and indirect comments.

The two presidents stood side by side at a joint press conference outside of the Palais de Rohan in central Strasbourg and lavished one another with praise. Sarkozy expressed his admiration for Obama’s open-mindedness, and the American president commended Sarkozy’s energy and creativity in solving problems.

Calling NATO “the most successful alliance in modern history,” Obama said it was a pillar of American foreign policy that he wanted to affirm and uphold. But France’s decision to rejoin the integrated military command has not been without controversy at home, due to the perception that the country would lose its independent decision-making ability and be forced to go along with America’s military decisions.

With measured comments, both men addressed those concerns.

We want strong allies, Obama said, stating that America’s role would not be that of a “patron” but of a “partner.” But Obama added that everyone must be prepared to shoulder  responsibility and make sacrifices.

While stating his full endorsement for America’s plan in Afghanistan, Sarkozy was firm in his stance that there would be no more French troops deployed to fight. Instead, France was prepared to do more nation-building: providing more military police, for example, in order to help the Afghans secure a better future for themselves.

That sentiment was echoed by other European nations. A spokesman for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs said America’s approach in “trying to hunt down terrorists with a clear eye at the broader problem” was in line with the Netherlands' strategy of “diplomacy, defense and development.”

Job van den Berg declined to comment on whether the Netherlands would send more troops to Afghanistan as America has announced it will do, but he said his country has been “working in this integrated way” for years now and the approach was an inspiration for the new U.S. model.

And as if to remind the world of his independent-mindedness and fearlessness when it comes to disagreeing with U.S. policy, Sarkozy responded to a journalist’s question with: “You don’t combat terrorists with terrorist methods, but rather with democracy,” referring to the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama’s next stop after the press conference was a packed hall, with an audience that included throngs of young people taking part in NATO’s Youth Summit. There, Obama spoke with even more candor about the relationship between Europe and America and addressed some of the reasons for strains and why it was important to put that aside and work together. “We must be honest with ourselves,” he began.

In recent years the alliance has been allowed to drift, he said. He said there was a failure in America to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world and that America has shown arrogance as well as a dismissive and sometimes derisive attitude toward Europe. But he didn’t stop there.

He said anti-Americanism in Europe, while at once casual, could be insidious, and he pointed to times when Europeans tended to cast blame on America. He said those attitudes on both sides have become too common and threatened to leave both sides more isolated.

“America is changing,” Obama said. “But it cannot be America alone that changes.”

His comments drew a burst of loud applause when he discussed steps that both Russia and and the United States were taking to reduce their nuclear stockpiles.

And as if answering Sarkozy’s point about Guantanamo, Obama reiterated that closing the prison was a good decision, saying that he did not believe there was a “contradiction between our security and our values.”

Without naming any countries in particular, Obama spoke more firmly about Europe’s responsibility in Afghanistan and in confronting terrorism, stating that an Al Qaeda attack was possible in Europe.

“Europe should not simply expect the United states to shoulder that burden alone,” Obama said. “This is joint problem and requires joint effort.”

Obama was very clear about the mission in Afghanistan, which is the biggest point of contention with European allies.

“We have no interest in occupying Afghanistan,” he said. “This is a mission that tests if nations can come together on behalf of our common security.”