Pushing back against the notion of an Old World in decline, President Obama, addressing Britain’s Parliament, said that while the U.S. and United Kingdom no longer can single-handedly carve up the world, they remain the fundamental forces pushing the rest of the globe toward democracy and open economies.
In a broad defense of market economies and civil rights he said were pioneered in England and exported to its one-time colonies in the U.S., Mr. Obama said the 21st century will be defined by the rest of the world moving “in fits and starts” toward those principles.
“It’s become fashionable in some quarters to question whether the rise of these nations will accompany the decline of American and European influence. … That argument is wrong. The time for our leadership is now,” Mr. Obama said. “It was the United States and United Kingdom and our democratic allies that shaped the world in which new nations could emerge, and individuals could thrive.”
Delivering part history lesson, part pep-talk, Mr. Obama said the “special relationship” the U.S. and U.K. share is based on the values that other countries are struggling to achieve — and that has played out over the last two decades in Eastern Europe, and is now seen in the democratic movements in North Africa and the Middle East.
The relationship between the two countries has been a hot topic since Mr. Obama arrived in London, so much so that the president and Prime Minister David Cameron have upgraded its status from “special” to “special and essential.”
Michael White, a political commentator for the Guardian newspaper, said the British are famously neurotic about their ties with Washington and were a bit concerned that a president born in Hawaii would be a Pacific president.
“The facts haven’t changed since President Obama arrived on Monday night — China and India are still the rising world powers,” he said. “But he has soothed our insecurity all along this trip, and the speech in Westminster Hall was the icing on the cake.”
Mr. Obama spoke to both houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster, and was introduced by Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow, who said Mr. Obama was the first president to address the assembly in this way.
The president said he’d been told the previous three speakers were the pope, the queen and former South African President Nelson Mandela, and he joked that was “either a very high bar or the beginning of a very funny joke.”
The speech was greeted by a solemn and respectful silence — a stark contrast to the raucous affairs that speeches to joint sessions of Congress have become, including this week’s speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which drew dozens of standing ovations.
Labor parliamentarian Sadiq Khan said the warm reception Mr. Obama received shows that “our political and cultural ties are still incredibly strong.”
“It was clear from what we heard today that this is a president who wants to work with others to help tackle some of the world’s biggest problems,” he said.
Others were more muted in their praise.
“I felt that standing there was a man … who had no particular emotional attachment while trying to explain the value of the relationship between the U.K. and the U.S. and his commitment to it,” said Secretary of State for Transport Philip Hammond.
The president said the two nations themselves are special in the world in being nations bound together by ideals of freedom and diversity, not by ethnicity or race, and it gives hope to other nations that former colonies and former enemies can come together.
Mr. Obama said that is why the two nations are part of an international coalition protecting rebels in Libya from the forces of their leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, who promised to massacre those in the rebellion.
The address followed another day of pageantry: The president and the first lady were welcomed to Buckingham Palace Tuesday with a 41-gun salute and rendition of the U.S. national anthem from the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery.
• Naomi Westland reported from London. Louise Osbourne contributed to this report.