The Barack Obama global charm offensive continues unabated as he returns to Washington from Trinidad and Tobago where he spent two days as the main attraction and the great hope at the Fifth Summit of the Americas. In a single weekend, Obama completely transformed the diplomatic landscape of the region, by saying the most reasonable, middle-of-the-road things—We are interested in a different kind of relationship with Cuba. Venezuela is no threat to us; why not be courteous?
Asked yesterday, at the end of the summit, to define his emerging approach to foreign policy, Obama demurred slightly, but offered this guidance: “There are a couple of principles that I've tried to apply across the board: Number one, that the United States remains the most powerful, wealthiest nation on Earth, but we're only one nation, and that the problems that we confront, whether it's drug cartels, climate change, terrorism, you name it, can't be solved just by one country. And I think if you start with that approach, then you are inclined to listen and not just talk.”
This is music to the ears of those leaders in the Caribbean and in Latin America who understand the importance of the U.S. to their own economic development, but who also despair deeply that the region's relationship with the U.S. over the last 100 years has often been defined either by disdain or disregard, and sometimes both.
Obama openly rejected that approach, assuring the leaders that the U.S. wanted to be a partner in the region, not an overseer, and that the chance for that new partnership is now. “Too often, an opportunity to build a fresh partnership of the Americas has been undermined by stale debates,” he said. “And we've heard all these arguments before, these debates that would have us make a false choice between rigid, state-run economies or unbridled and unregulated capitalism; between blame for right-wing paramilitaries or left-wing insurgents; between sticking to inflexible policies with regard to Cuba or denying the full human rights that are owed to the Cuban people.”
It was typical Obama—embracing and espousing the most noble sentiments without sounding hokey, hackneyed or naïve in a climate drenched in earned cynicism; none of these issues are new, none of the solutions easy or obvious. Anyone who waxes on too optimistically about a “fresh partnership” for the Americas is at risk of getting laughed out of the room on platitude violations.
Instead, Obama's word encouraged Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the poster boy for Latin American irascibility, to declare that he wanted to friend the new American president, and that he would send his ambassador back to Washington, after pulling him out last September.
The friction with Chavez was to be one of the big sideshows of the weekend, and Obama successfully diffused it, disarmingly introducing himself to the Venezuelan president. Chavez reciprocated by giving the American president a book.
Yesterday Obama explained his always-so-damned-reasonable thinking while talking to Chavez. “I think it was a nice gesture to give me a book; I'm a reader,” Obama said. He then laid out his many differences with Chavez and acknowledged that the Venezuelan's rhetoric to United States has been inflammatory.
“On the other hand, Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States,” he said. “They own Citgo. It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States. I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.”
One of the things that leaders and people in the region will find most attractive about Obama is his more benign interpretation of American exceptionalism; his approach is that the U.S. is exceptional in achievement, but not in its values. And as a result, it is entitled to lead, but not necessarily to dictate.
“I feel very strongly that when we are at our best, the United States represents a set of universal values and ideals,” he said. He listed freedom of speech and religion, civil societies where people are free to pursue their dreams. “So we've got a set of ideas that I think have broad applicability. But what I also believe is that other countries have different cultures, different perspectives and are coming out of different histories, and that we do our best to promote our ideals and our values by our example.”
This, of course, has not always been the American way, so Obama exited with a conga line of amens and hallelujahs out of the Caribbean and Latin America.
The host prime minister, Patrick Manning, declared: "Let this fifth summit of the Americas be the first in a new approach that heralds in the Western Hemisphere the dawn of a newer and brighter and better day."
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.