President Barack Obama's address to the UK parliament had one overriding objective: to reassure nervous Brits and a broader European audience that the United States still regards the transatlantic partnership as the central pillar of world order. The president spoke at a difficult moment, given the inconclusive NATO air war over Libya, an unending military campaign in Afghanistan, and a deepening sovereign debt crisis and budgetary retrenchment across Europe. There are also growing concerns about the challenges to the West posed by rapidly emerging powers like China, India, and Brazil. Obama's speech was as much a pep talk as anything else--a celebration of the durability of the "special relationship" and of the continued vitality of Western political values in the twenty-first century.
Predictably, the president began by reaffirming the shared political values and history binding two principal partners in the transatlantic relationship--the United States and Britain. He invoked the Magna Carta, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and the defeat of fascism and totalitarianism in the twentieth century. But even as he invoked a glorious past, Obama stressed the future importance of the alliance to global peace, prosperity and justice, just as it had been in the days of Churchill and FDR.
Obama was tilting against conventional wisdom, which holds that the whole of the West is losing ground inexorably to the rising Rest. "It has become fashionable in some quarters," he noted, "to question whether the rise of these nations will accompany the decline of American and European influence around the world." The president disagreed. "The time for our leadership is now."
Such optimism is justified for a few reasons. First, the United States and Europe together remain crucial actors in spurring global responses to today's threats and opportunities, from countering proliferation and terrorism to combating climate change to promoting human rights. Yes, rising powers are assuming new responsibilities. But the West's leadership remains essential to enforcing global rules.
Second, Europe and the United States remain linked by history's most successful military alliance. At the Lisbon summit, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began to adapt itself "to meet new threats: terrorism and piracy, cyberattacks, and ballistic missiles." And its Libya mission testifies to its enduring relevance.
Third, the United States and Europe are the world's leading champions of what the president called "freedom and human dignity." These ideals may have emerged first in the West, but--as recent events in North Africa and the Middle East make clear--they retain universal appeal.
Fourth, the president was right to point out that competition in the global economy favors "countries with the most creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens." As "free-thinking, forward-looking" nations, blessed with outstanding universities, the United States and Britain have a natural advantage.
Finally, in the case of the United States and Britain, both countries benefit from their liberal approach to national identity. Rather than defining it on the basis of race or ethnicity, both countries treat it as a matter of adherence to "a certain set of ideals--the rights of individuals and the rule of law." This unique approach to nationhood makes them vibrant polities and attractive global models.