Tuesday, April 7th, 2009 at 10:29 am
The Student Roundtable in Turkey
It was a leisurely 12:20 PM, just after noon in Turkey, but it was 5:20 AM or earlier back in the United States, so many here may have missed a very interesting discussion with 100 university students in Istanbul (read the full transcript). The President laid out why he wanted to do the roundtable in his opening remarks:
I enjoyed visiting your parliament. I've had productive discussions with your President and your Prime Minister. But I also always like to take some time to talk to people directly, especially young people. So in the next few minutes I want to focus on three areas in which I think we can make some progress: advancing dialogue between our two countries, but also advancing dialogue between the United States and the Muslim world; extending opportunity in education and in social welfare; and then also reaching out to young people as our best hope for peaceful, prosperous futures in both Turkey and in the United States.
On the first point, he talked about listening, he talked about breaking down stereotypes on both sides, and he talked about accepting that neither side is perfect while standing up against unreasonable prejudice, whether that’s religious bigotry or virulent anti-Americanism. On the second point, he said, "Here there's great potential for the United States to work with Muslims around the world on behalf of a more prosperous future. And I want to pursue a new partnership on behalf of basic priorities: What can we do to help more children get a good education? What can we do to expand health care to regions that are on the margins of global society? What steps can we take in terms of trade and investment to create new jobs and industries and ultimately advance prosperity for all of us?"
The question-and-answer period spanned several issues, from climate change, to the Kurds in Iraq, to Turkey’s potential membership in the EU -- but one question related directly to the President’s third point from his opening remarks:
Q What actions will you take after you wrote your quote, peace at home and peace at the world, to -- (inaudible) -- and what do you think, as Turkish young men and women, how can we help you at this purpose you have?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, some people say that maybe I'm being too idealistic. I made a speech in Prague about reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons, and some people said, ah, that will never happen. And some people have said, why are you discussing the Middle East when it's not going to be possible for the Israelis and the Palestinians to come together? Or, why are you reaching out to the Iranians, because the U.S. and Iran can never agree on anything?
My attitude is, is that all these things are hard. I mean, I'm not naïve. If it was easy, it would have already been done. Somebody else would have done it. But if we don't try, if we don't reach high, then we won't make any progress. And I think that there's a lot of progress that can be made.
And as I said in my opening remarks, I think the most important thing to start with is dialogue. When you have a chance to meet people from other cultures and other countries, and you listen to them and you find out that, even though you may speak a different language or you may have a different religious faith, it turns out that you care about your family, you have your same hopes about being able to have a career that is useful to the society, you hope that you can raise a family of your own, and that your children will be healthy and have a good education -- that all those things that human beings all around the world share are more important than the things that are different.
And so that is a very important place to start. And that's where young people can be very helpful, because I think old people, we get into habits and we become suspicious and we carry grudges. Right? You know, it was interesting when I met with President Medvedev of Russia and we actually had a very good dialogue, and we were -- we spoke about the fact that although both of us were born during the Cold War, we came of age after the Cold War had already begun to decline, which means we have a slightly different attitude than somebody who was seeing Russia only as the Soviet Union -- only as an enemy or who saw America only as an enemy.
So young people, they can get rid of some of the old baggage and the old suspicions, and I think that's very important. But understanding alone is not enough. Then you -- we actually have to do the work.
And for the United States, I think that means that we have to make sure that our actions are responsible, so on international issues like climate change we have to take leadership. If we're producing a lot of pollution that's causing global warming, then we have to step forward and say, here's what we're willing to do, and then ask countries like China to join us.
If we want to say to Iran, don't develop nuclear weapons because if you develop them then everybody in the region is going to want them and you'll have a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and that will be dangerous for everybody -- if we want to say that to Iranians, it helps if we are also saying, "and we will reduce our own," so that we have more moral authority in those claims.
If we want to communicate to countries that we sincerely care about the well-being of their people, then we have to make sure that our aid programs and our assistance programs are meaningful.
So words are good and understanding is good, but ultimately it has to translate into concrete actions. And it takes time. I was just talking to my press team and they were amused because some of my reporter friends from the States were asking, how come you didn't solve everything on this trip? They said, well, you know, it's only been a week. These things take time and the idea is that you lay the groundwork and slowly, over time, if you make small efforts, they can add up into big efforts. And that's, I think, the approach that we want to take in promoting more peace and prosperity around the world.