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The uses of gratitude in diplomacy

Patience building

President Obama’s message on a European tour was that the Continent can help overcome its many woes by remembering the progress it has made – and the example it still sets for the world.

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President Barack Obama delivers a speech during his visit to Hanover, Germany April 25, 2016.

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In a trip to Europe this week, President Obama relied on a little-used art of diplomacy to help the Continent resolve its divisions and woes, which range from a refugee crisis to a possible British exit from the European Union. He asked Europeans to be more grateful for the progress they have already made.

“Perhaps you need an outsider, somebody who is not European, to remind you of the magnitude of what you have achieved from the ruins of the Second World War,” he said in a speech in the German city of Hanover. “Your accomplishment – more than 500 million people speaking 24 languages in 28 countries, 19 with a common currency, in one European Union – remains one of the greatest political and economic achievements of modern times.”

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Diplomacy doesn’t always entail arm-twisting negotiations or forceful persuasion about shared interests. It can also mean stepping back to acknowledge past accomplishments toward a common good. Mr. Obama, who campaigned on a message of hope and is now in his final year as president, has tried to anchor that theme with a new focus on gratitude.

“Hope is not blind when it is rooted in the memory of all that you’ve already overcome,” he said.

His speech echoed the point made by the Nobel Peace Prize committee when it awarded the prize to the EU in 2012.

“The main message is that we need to keep in mind what we have achieved on this continent, and not let the continent go into disintegration again,” said Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Nobel committee.

Obama broadened his message with a global perspective, telling his audience that if they had to choose a moment in time to be born, they would choose today. “We are living in the most peaceful, prosperous, and progressive era in human history,” he said.

In a similar speech earlier in Britain, he asked that people reject the notion that they are “gripped by forces that we can’t control.” He cited the fact that extreme poverty has been cut in half around the world and how almost every woman in a democracy can now vote. Europe, he said, must not question its progress but embrace it in order to help the rest of the world maintain its progress.

Gratitude, states Northeastern University professor David DeSteno in the Harvard Business Review, is a way to foster long-term thinking and patience. “We all recognize the fact that willpower can and does fail at times,” he writes.

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The facts today in Europe cry out for gratitude. A continent that was once in constant war now has people desperately trying to enter it. Even as the EU struggles, said Reminder in Chief Obama, it can’t take that point for granted.