President Obama's address to the British Parliament on Wednesday, the most important speech of his week-long European mission, underscored the promotion of human rights and democracy as the foundation of the U.S.-U.K. special relationship.
The first American president to speak in London's 900-year-old Westminister Hall, Obama made the case for continued world leadership by the U.S. and Great Britain even as rising powers like Brazil and China assert themselves on the global stage.
“Perhaps the argument goes, these nations represent the future, and the time for our leadership has passed.... That argument is wrong," Obama said. "At a time when threats and challenges require nations to work in concert with one another, we remain the greatest catalysts for global action.”
The most recent example of that global action, by Obama’s measure, was the NATO-led bombing campaign in Libya. The U.S. and Britain could not stand back as Muammar el-Qaddafi threatened to massacre his people, Obama argued, because both nations shared a “broader responsibility” to protect civilians. “We will not relent until the people of Libya are protected and the shadow of tyranny is lifted,” he pledged.
At a press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier in the day, the two leaders agreed, as Cameron said, that it was time to be "turning up the heat" on the Libyan strongman, who has thus far eluded NATO airstrikes.
Speaking more broadly of the Arab Spring, Obama argued in his address that the U.S. and Britain needed to overcome “a mistrust that is rooted in a difficult past” among nations in the region. The president maintained that Western countries should be able to fight terror in the region with partners who “may not be perfect” and prevent disruptions in the oil supply while still proving that they were on the side of democracy.
Shifting course in the Middle East was one of Obama’s examples of how the U.S. and Britain needed to adapt to a changing world. He also called for increased investment in education, one of his top domestic priorities and one that he shared with Cameron, who has been instituting the kind of severe budget cuts that Obama is under pressure to implement.
“We educate our citizens and train our workers in the best colleges and universities on earth, but to maintain this advantage in a world that's more competitive than ever we will have to redouble our investments in science and engineering and renew our national commitments to educating our work forces,” he said.
Through most of the speech, those in the audience were subdued, but they interrupted to applaud Obama when he said that the U.S. and Britain were strong because of their “patchwork heritage” in which citizenship was defined by shared values rather than race or ethnicity.
“The example of our two nations says it is possible for people to be united by their ideals instead of divided by their differences,” Obama said. “It is possible for hearts to change and old hatreds to pass. It's possible for the sons and daughters of former colonies to sit here as members of this great parliament and for the grandson of a Kenyan who served as a cook in the British army to stand before you as president of the United States.”
There was a moment of levity at the top of the speech as Obama noted that the "the last three speakers here have been the Pope, Her Majesty the Queen, and Nelson Mandela—which is either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke."