Another spring, another step forward in Prague…

It is easy to carp at aspects of President Obama’s European trip. The G20 meeting and the NATO Summit offered predictable outcomes, solid but underwhelming. If the president bowed to the Saudi king, and it appears as though he did, it was a gaffe and a pretty nauseating one at that. Debating about whether Michelle ...

587088_090406_Prague_B2.jpg
587088_090406_Prague_B2.jpg

It is easy to carp at aspects of President Obama's European trip. The G20 meeting and the NATO Summit offered predictable outcomes, solid but underwhelming. If the president bowed to the Saudi king, and it appears as though he did, it was a gaffe and a pretty nauseating one at that. Debating about whether Michelle should have worn a sweater to see the Queen or whether Obama should have gotten a bigger kiss from Carla Bruni Sarkozy has also spun up bloggers around the world. (Who cares whether she wears a sweater? And of course, he should get as big a kiss from Carla as he possibly can.) The failed North Korean missile test was an unsettling distraction but wiser men than I have long said the safest place to be when the North Koreans are launching a missile is wherever they are targeting. 

But, these bits and pieces are not what people will or should remember from the trip. Obama has had a successful journey because he has stepped more or less seamlessly into the role of world leader and done so with both substance and style that have in some important ways altered for the better America's relationship with the world. We may someday look back and lament that the G20 did not do more to address the need for more global stimulus or greater regulation of global securities markets. We almost certainly will look back and note that NATO did not yet realize that we are entering a new era in which they may be surprised to find they are getting the America they wanted...more inclined toward multilateralism by virtue of both belief and necessity -- but that this will obligate the alliance to the discomfort of many within it to share burdens more equitably or fail.

It is easy to carp at aspects of President Obama’s European trip. The G20 meeting and the NATO Summit offered predictable outcomes, solid but underwhelming. If the president bowed to the Saudi king, and it appears as though he did, it was a gaffe and a pretty nauseating one at that. Debating about whether Michelle should have worn a sweater to see the Queen or whether Obama should have gotten a bigger kiss from Carla Bruni Sarkozy has also spun up bloggers around the world. (Who cares whether she wears a sweater? And of course, he should get as big a kiss from Carla as he possibly can.) The failed North Korean missile test was an unsettling distraction but wiser men than I have long said the safest place to be when the North Koreans are launching a missile is wherever they are targeting. 

But, these bits and pieces are not what people will or should remember from the trip. Obama has had a successful journey because he has stepped more or less seamlessly into the role of world leader and done so with both substance and style that have in some important ways altered for the better America’s relationship with the world. We may someday look back and lament that the G20 did not do more to address the need for more global stimulus or greater regulation of global securities markets. We almost certainly will look back and note that NATO did not yet realize that we are entering a new era in which they may be surprised to find they are getting the America they wanted…more inclined toward multilateralism by virtue of both belief and necessity — but that this will obligate the alliance to the discomfort of many within it to share burdens more equitably or fail.

Yet, here is a President who listens, who has mastered multiple briefs quickly, and who is willing to be bold where it counts. Nowhere is that more clear than in the important speech he delivered over the weekend in Prague in which he announced a new U.S. policy on nuclear weapons, one that recognizes the strategic urgency as well as the moral resonance of our leading a global drawdown of atomic arsenals. Only through such an approach can we address what he called “a strange turn of history” in which “the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.” He agreed with the Russians to begin negotiations to reduce the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals and he announced an intent to lead efforts to create a safe path to nuclear power in the emerging world including the creation of a nuclear fuel bank, a potential new international organization overseeing the weapons reductions and a round of diplomacy to advance these goals.

The Wall Street Journal rather predictably juxtaposed Obama’s speech on this most important of all national security issues with the story of North Korea’s missile test. The not exactly subtle message was “look, the world is dangerous, what is this guy doing?” But the answer is that he clearly understands better than they do that the only way to stop what is currently an out of control global nuclear arms race that is currently threatening not only northeast Asia but which is threatening to spread across the world’s most dangerous region, the Middle East, is by having the great nuclear powers start leading by example. Only if all are collectively committed to eliminating nuclear weapons can it be fairly argued that no one should have them. Only if real progress is made can such a case be compelling reiterated and enforced. Obama’s Prague speech hinted at the courage and vision of a great leader. That he saw that such a statement should also come with tough messages about the need to maintain missile defense programs and a forward-leaning stance against proliferators also showed this was a strong rather than a weak approach to disarmament. Translating it into action will be the true test as to whether he is the transformational 21st century leader so many in Europe have started to believe…this week…he might be.

Just a week ago I had a piece in the Washington Post asking where the leaders are and urging critics of Obama to be more patient, to give him the chance to be the president we want. A week later, particularly with this Prague speech, Obama has offered the best rationale for such patience. There is a considerable often impassable distance between promising rhetoric and meaningful action, but at least the first steps are being taken.  While missteps are guaranteed…I think we all should be more hopeful as the trip draws to a conclusion than we were at its outset.

STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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