LONDON — Barack Obama devoted much of his inaugural speech and first few days in office to repudiating his predecessor - and it was no different Wednesday when he set foot on the world stage for the first time.
On a day of dizzying diplomacy with three world powers, Obama made one thing clear: the Bush era of foreign policy is over.
In strokes of symbolism and on issues of substance, the president’s international debut was starkly different from the approach America’s allies and adversaries grew to know — and often bitterly complain about- over the past eight years.
Gone was diplomacy by towel-snapping, Bush’s effort to kindle bilateral relationships as much through chummy asides and the occasional shoulder-rub as by serious policy discussion.
Instead, Obama officials emphasized just how sober their sessions had been.
Cognizant of Bush’s much-mocked 2001 pronouncement that he had peered into Vladimir Putin’s soul upon first meeting the hard-line Russian premier, Obama officials went to great lengths to focus on just how impersonal the president’s visit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had been.
It was a "constant strategy on the Bush administration's part, to develop this personal rapport,” noted a senior Obama administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Our strategy is to develop an agenda based on interest … not to make the goal of these meetings to develop some kind of buddy-buddy relationship [with Russia]."
At a briefing for the White House press corps following the meeting, a senior administration official was almost grudging in acknowledging that Obama and Medvedev asked about one another’s families and noted that they were both attorneys.
“Let’s get down to business,” was how this official characterized the meeting.
Later, another senior administration official sharing details about Obama’s sit-down with Chinese President Hu Jintao said much the same: “I would describe the meeting as business-like.”
Even with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a staunch American ally who Obama already knew, it was the usually dour Scot who was more effusive and warm than his businesslike American cousin.
On policy, the differences were also unmistakable.
Obama and his aides touted an agreement reached with the Russians to renew an arms control treaty set to expire later this year — reductions the Bush administration showed limited interested in pursuing. In fact, at a similar point in the young Bush presidency in 2001, neo-conservatives were pursuing one of their first victories, which was to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow.
In a joint statement, Obama and Medvedev pointedly said that they were working “to establish a new tone in our relations.”
Yet even as Obama sought to thaw relations with Moscow and celebrated the weapons accord, his advisers were hastening to note that there had been differences and that the new president stood his ground.
“It was done in a very frank way,” a senior Obama official bragged of how the president approached areas of disagreement, citing tensions on Russia’s approach to Georgia and more broadly nations it considers within its “sphere of influence.”
In the mind of Obama officials, the meeting with Medvedev and the proposed nuclear draw-down offered an initial answer to those oft-asked questions during the primary and general election about whether a foreign policy neophyte could face off with the world’s powers.
And Obama underlined a promise of his own from the campaign — that America would engage the world and seek to not act alone.
In taking questions next to Brown Wednesday morning before scores of reporters and cameras, the president repeated what his aides have been saying in the days leading up to tis visit.
“I came here to put forward our ideas, but I also came here to listen, and not to lecture,” he said, an unmistakable nod to changing what many in the world perceive as America’s arrogance.
On foreign policy, specifically, he returned to the idea of cooperation.
Discussing his new Afghanistan and Pakistan policy — something which has not been universally well-received overseas — Obama made sure to note that his review “benefited greatly from the consultations with our allies.”
But nowhere was the new tone more striking than in his meeting with Brown, in which Obama became a virtual political prop for the embattled prime minister. Brown lavished praise on the American president and quickly strode over to his counterpart’s podium for an iconic photograph after their joint press conference.
This on the same day that the appearance of America’s new first couple was front-page news on the papers of every ideological stripe in London and as their motorcade was met with crowds cheering and waving with all five fingers.
That’s a long, long way from the Bush years, during which the American president was hugely unpopular in Britain — so much so that former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq war all but incinerated his political legacy.
Obama, it appears, has erased many bad British memories. And if the British press wanted to label Brown Obama’s “poodle,” as they taunted Blair for his chummy relationship with Bush, the unpopular PM would likely embrace the tag.