Posted By: Toby Harnden at Apr 3, 2009 at 16:24:00
Posted in: Foreign Correspondents Telegraph
Here in the Rhenus Sports Arena in Strasbourg, I've just witnessed what is surely a very important - I hesitate to say historic - moment in transatlantic relations. Barack Obama went further than any previous president in apologising for American behaviour.
"In America, there is a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world," he said in a prepared speech delivered before a campaign-style town hall meeting in which he took questions from mainly French and German students.
"Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive."
But he balanced this startling mea culpa - or, perhaps more accurately, a George W. Bush culpa - with a clear message to Europeans that blaming America for everything was unacceptable.
"In Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious. Instead of recognising the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what is bad."
Then, in classic Obama fashion, he sought to find a synthesis between the two poles. "On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth.
"They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated. They fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America."
I was standing beside a White House official who told me afterwards that the speech was a concerted attempt to draw a line under the Bush years and offer an olive branch to Europe.
The time is fast approaching when Obama will have to be more than the unBush - that will not get him a pass in Europe indefinitely. He recognises this, saying: "I think it is important for Europe to understand that even though I am president and George Bush is not president, al-Qaeda is still a threat."
In concrete, immediate terms Obama wants to use his vow to rebuild America's global relations by securing more troops for Afghanistan.
The rather woolly US language on this subject last week now seems to be hardening up considerably with Obama saying that although "we will be partnering with Europe on the development side and on the diplomatic side" that isn't in itself enough.
"There will be a military component to it," he said. "And Europe should not simply expect the United States to shoulder that burden alone. We should not, because this is a joint problem, and it requires joint effort."
Word is that Gordon Brown has just pledged to send 1,000 more troops to Afghanistan. We should soon know whether the continental Europeans will also be - as Obama put it while standing alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany - "stepping up to the plate".