Errant European

No need for me to chronicle or comment on the seemingly never-ending summit saga of President Obama. His procession through Europe – London to Strasbourg to Prague to… Istanbul, which has a foot in both Europe and Asia – has been documented amply, including by Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb, who wrote in Saturday’s New York Times of the President’s effect on Europeans – and Americans:

Mr. Obama confers dignity on his country and its people.

Can’t get much more bang for your public diplomacy travel dollar than that.

Photo Courtesy Justine Tchachenko, Young Democrats Abroad Brussels
Photo Courtesy Justine Tkachenko, Young Democrats Abroad Brussels

That other Presidential superstar, William Jefferson Clinton, known as Bill to his closest friends, has also been winning European hearts and minds, most recently at last week’s Global Progressive Forum (GPF, hosted by the European Socialist group at the European Parliament) in Brussels. Bill spoke convincingly to hundreds of center-left social democrats, trade unionists, and assorted do-gooders about the world’s multiple crises, summoning up an easily-remembered trinity: The Three U’s.

The world, according to Bill, is:

  • Profoundly unequal; and was so even before the current economic crisis, which has only compounded the inequalities. And the inequalities are not just between North-South, rich-poor nations. Clinton pointed out the huge income, health care, and education gaps within the United States.
  • Profoundly unstable; a reference to the gyrations of the financial system and commodity markets – the “great unraveling.” Clinton’s formula to help people understand what Credit Default Swaps (CDS) are: “you take a previously risk-free investment – family home mortgages – you create an ‘insurance’ against default, and then bundle it into a highly risky investment.”
  • Ultimately unsustainable; irreplaceable fossil fuels fueling disastrous climate change.

Clinton, to sustained applause, said that the solution to each of the “U’s” is found in the others: the economic system is unstable because it is unequal; aid flows can’t stop just because budgets in rich nations are momentarily stretched, as the South can be part of the solution to demand for goods; unsustainable energy use can be converted to clean, green sources as part of worldwide stimulus plans. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Drawing on his Clinton Foundation work in India, he likened land fills and trash dumps to power plants: “Every time I see a garbage dump, I see money and jobs.” Evoking images from “Slumdog Millionaire,” Clinton said that we need to “turn scavengers into recycling engineers.”

The Obama-Clinton tag team has reminded Europeans – after eight long years of “with us/against us” Bush-Cheney battering – that American presidents can be inspiring. As Amélie Nothomb entitles her NYT Op-Ed – “Liberty, Equality, Envy” – sometimes they can even make European leaders a bit jealous.

(This first appeared in “Avuncular American” – “An expatriate view of America and the world from Europe by former diplomat Gerald Loftus”)

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