The United States is still the same country it was a year ago, give or take about 6 million jobs. But its international branding campaign, as led by the new President, Barack Obama, is so different that the rest of the world might be forgiven if it has to do a double take.
Most of the hallmarks of the foreign policy of George W. Bush are gone. The old conservative idea of "American exceptionalism," which placed the U.S. on a plane above the rest of the world as a unique beacon of democracy and financial might, has been rejected. At almost every stop, Obama has made clear that the U.S. is but one actor in a global community. Talk of American economic supremacy has been replaced by a call from Obama for more growth in developing countries. Claims of American military supremacy have been replaced with heavy emphasis on cooperation and diplomatic hard labor. (Read "Obama in Europe: Facing Four Big Challenges.")
The tone was set from Obama's first public remarks in London on Wednesday, at a press conference with Prime Minister Gordon Brown, where the American President said he had come "to listen, not to lecture." At a joint appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Baden-Baden on Friday, a German reporter asked Obama about his "grand designs" for NATO. "I don't come bearing grand designs," Obama said, scrapping the leadership role the U.S. maintained through the Cold War. "I'm here to listen, to share ideas and to jointly, as one of many NATO allies, help shape our vision for the future."
On Thursday night, after the G-20 summit ended, Obama took so many questions from the foreign press, including British, Indian and Chinese reporters, that a group of them applauded when he left the stage. Two American reporters asked Obama for his response to the claim by Brown that the "Washington consensus is over." Obama all but agreed with Brown, noting that the phrase had its roots in a significant set of economic policies that had shown itself to be imperfect. He went on to talk about the benefits of increasing economic competition with the U.S. "That's not a loss for America," he said of the economic rise of other powers. "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."
At a town hall in Strasbourg, France, Obama stood before an audience of mostly French and German youth and admitted that the U.S. should have a greater respect for Europe. "In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world," he said before offering other European critical views of his country. "There have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive."
The contrast is striking. Only four years ago, George W. Bush, in his second Inaugural Address, described what he called America's "considerable" influence, saying, "We will use it confidently in freedom's cause." Bush's vision of American power was combative and aggressive. He said the U.S. would "seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture." He continued, "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom."
Obama, by contrast, is looking for collaboration. He is looking to build a collective vision, not to impose an American one. And the response has been notable, from the endless flashbulbs that fired off at his town hall to the cheers of spectators who lined his motorcade routes and gathered outside his events in London. At the end of Obama's Friday press conference, French President Nicolas Sarkozy addressed the issue directly, speaking through an interpreter. "It feels really good to be able to work with a U.S. President who wants to change the world and who understands that the world does not boil down to simply American frontiers and borders," he said. "And that is a hell of a good piece of news for 2009."