The significance of President Barack Obama's speech in Cairo, Egypt, this morning—whether it marks a turning point in American foreign policy or just a string of lofty sentiments—will depend on what happens next, on what his administration does in the world, and on what other nations do in response.
And yet, if Obama does have an impact—if substantive progress is made in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, in luring Iran away from nuclear weapons, in isolating and defeating jihadist terrorists, in boosting the political fortunes of moderate Muslims—this speech will have had something to do with it. It may well be seen as a pivotal event, the necessary prelude to real change.
On its face, Obama's address was about the ancient values and principles that the United States and Islam share. But underlying this idea was a plea to move beyond the labels and stereotypes of religions and ideologies—to push them into the background, as facts that define some aspects of ourselves but that don't determine our actions or attitudes—so that we can deal with one another on the basis, as he put it, of "mutual interest and mutual respect."
In other words, this speech, like many of Obama's speeches on foreign affairs, was a plea for a return to realism.
Obama used similar language when speaking with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 talks last April. "What I believe we began today," he said at a joint press conference afterward, "is a very constructive dialogue that allows us to work on issues of mutual interest." The two sides had differences, and Obama didn't paper over them; in fact, he raised some of them explicitly and at some length. But he said he wouldn't let them get in the way of issues—such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, regional conflict, and international trade—in which the two nations had shared and vital interests.
This marked a welcome contrast to George W. Bush's tendency to demand that disputes be settled before common interests were pursued—a self-defeating approach, given that in many parts of the world the United States no longer had the leverage to impose its will so cavalierly.
Obama could make this point at the G20 talks without rousing much ire at home. The Cold War has long been over; it wasn't remotely shocking to see American and Russian presidents treating each other as peers in the community of nations.
However, for an American president and the leader of a Muslim nation, or at least certain Muslim nations, to carry on diplomatic relations—that would be quite alarming, both to many Americans and to many Muslims. One point of Obama's speech this morning was to switch off the alarm so that when this sort of diplomacy gets under way in full force, it won't seem so abnormal or set off huge waves of protest.
Polls show that many Americans see Islam and terrorism as practically synonymous. The same is true in the Muslim world for America and colonialism. Obama's principal aim was to shatter or at least begin to soften this perception.
AP Video: Obama Speaks in Egypt
Obama has spoken about the importance of perceptions on other occasions as well. At a press conference toward the end of the Summit of the Americas in April, he explained why the act of talking and listening to other countries might make a difference. It won't transform international politics, he acknowledged. "Countries are going to have interests," he said; sometimes their interests will diverge from ours, and that's not going to change. However, he continued, "at the margins," countries will be "more likely to want to cooperate than not cooperate." And if it turns out their resistance to U.S. policies is "based on old perceptions or ideological dogmas," he said, then maybe "we can actually solve a problem." There will still be "very tough negotiations on a whole host of issues," Obama went on. "That's not going to change because I'm popular … or leaders think that I've been respectful toward then. On the other hand, by having established those better relations, it means … there's more confidence that working with the United States is beneficial, and they are going to try to do more than they might otherwise have done."