WELCOMED with thunderous cheers, President Barack Obama pledged yesterday to repair damaged relations with Europe, saying the world came together following the 2001 terrorist attacks but then “we got sidetracked by Iraq”.
“We must be honest with ourselves,” Obama said. “In recent years, we’ve allowed our alliance to drift.”
The US president said that despite the bitter feelings that were generated by Iraq, the US and its allies must stand together because “al-Qaida is still a threat”.
Speaking before a French and German audience at a town hall-style gathering, Obama also encouraged a sceptical Europe to support his revamped strategy for rooting out terrorism suspects in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and said Europe should not expect America to shoulder the burden of sending in troops by itself.
“This is a joint problem,” Obama said on the cusp of the Nato summit. “And it requires a joint effort.”
He opened his appearance with a 25-minute prepared speech in which he set a dramatic, long-term goal of “a world without nuclear weapons”. He said he would outline details of his non-proliferation proposal in a speech in Prague tomorrow, near the end of a European trip spanning five countries in eight days.
“Even with the Cold War over, the spread of nuclear weapons or the theft of nuclear material could lead to the extermination of any city on Earth,” Obama said.
He held the campaign-like event in the midst of his first European trip as president as he sought to strengthen the United States’s standing in the world while working with foreign counterparts to right the troubled global economy.
Obama said the US shares the blame for the crisis, but that “every nation bears responsibility for what lies ahead — especially now.”
Obama invited questions from his French and German audience heavily made up of students in a sports arena. Even though Obama talked about the event as a way to interact with young foreigners, he did most of the talking and took only a handful of questions.
He acknowledged “my French and German are terrible” but noted that translators were on hand. Much like during his presidential campaign, Obama paced the stage with a microphone, like a talk-show host.
In his opening remarks, he underscored European and American ties and appeared intent on improving the US image abroad, which suffered under George W Bush. “I’ve come to Europe this week to renew our partnership,” Obama said, bluntly claiming that the relationship between the US and Europe had gone adrift, with blame on both sides.
“In America, there’s a failure to appreciate Europe’s leading role in the world,” Obama said.
Instead of celebrating Europe’s dynamic union and seeking to work with you, Obama said, “there have been times where America’s shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.”
“But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious. Instead of recognising the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans chose to blame America for much of what’s bad,” Obama said.
He added: “On both sides, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth.”
Obama encouraged Europe to support his new Afghanistan-Pakistan plan.
“I understand there’s doubt about this war in Europe,” Obama said. “There’s doubt even in the US.”
But he said the US and its allies must continue to work to defeat the “terrorists who threaten all of us”.
He said Europeans and Americans had to look past disagreements over Iraq.
Obama opposed the Iraq war, which divided America from many of its traditional allies and was the source of bitter relations between the US and Europe.
“We got sidetracked by Iraq and we have not fully recovered that initial insight that we have a mutual interest in ensuring that organisations like al-Qaida cannot operate,” he said. “I think it is important for Europe to understand that even though I am president and George Bush is not president, al-Qaida is still a threat.”
The president said he wants to look back at his tenure and know his work drastically lessened the threat of terrorism, particularly nuclear terrorism.
“We can’t reduce the threat of a nuclear weapon going off unless those that possess the most nuclear weapons — the United States and Russia — take serious steps to reduce our stockpiles,” Obama said. “So we want to pursue that vigorously in the years ahead.”
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