Barack Obama
Credit: Center for American Progress Action Fund/Wikimedia Commons

I came of age during the Cold War. I was 8 years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a teenager during the height of the Vietnam War, and in graduate school when the Iran-Contra scandal emerged – along with all of the other entanglements of the U.S. in Latin America. These were the issues and controversies that dominated this country’s foreign policy – much as terrorism and the conflicts in the Middle East do so today.

I say all that by way of explanation for the fact that I haven’t forgotten what this country has gotten wrong in the past. There was a legitimate clash of ideologies between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. And the specter of nuclear war was terrifying. But in many ways those threats became tangled with global corporate interests and a lack of awareness about the impending death of colonialism. In the process, millions of people all over the planet had their lives upended and damaged by our interventions.

All over the West, people celebrated the end of the Cold War as the wall in Germany came down. That was an historic occasion. But for many people in Asia and Latin America, it didn’t end there. What had happened in their countries as a result of the Cold War was never mentioned and/or addressed. Max Fisher wrote a must-read column about how President Obama is addressing that – most recently with his trip to Laos.

It would have seemed surprising from any other president, but has become practically routine for President Obama in his final year in office: acknowledging the United States’ unsavory history in a country he was visiting.

This week, it was the C.I.A.-led bombing and paramilitary campaign that devastated Laos during the Vietnam War. While the president stopped short of apologizing, he was, in his words, “acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.”

Mr. Obama had similarly confronted American misdeeds this year in Cuba, Argentina, Vietnam and Japan, each time raising decades-old but still sensitive actions, framed in the language of reconciliation…

Mr. Obama’s series of speeches reviewing historical trouble spots highlight several unusual facets of his worldview. They fit within his larger effort to reach out to former adversaries such as Cuba and Myanmar. They assert his belief in introspection and the need to overcome the past. And they highlight his perspective that American power has not always been a force for good.

This kind of thing doesn’t get much play here in the U.S. As Fisher notes, part of the reason for that is because when the right-wingers get a whiff of it they start screaming “apology tour!” But it’s also because so many of us assumed this was all in the past and was put to rest by the fall of the U.S.S.R. in the 1980’s.

More than any other president, Obama knows that is not the case in other parts of the world and that a failure to address it gets in the way. The title of Fisher’s piece hints at that: “Obama, Acknowledging U.S. Misdeeds Abroad, Quietly Reframes American Power.” Here’s what he wrote about that:

When he hints that the United States has caused harm abroad and perhaps even made mistakes, it squares American rhetoric with reality as the world perceives it. Supporters see this as sending a message to foreign states that they can trust Washington to hear their concerns and even compromise, encouraging allies and adversaries alike to invest political capital in the relationship.

I was reminded of something President Obama said to Tom Friedman in the context of discussing the negotiations with Iran – not necessarily a situation that was affected by the Cold War – but the dynamics are the same.

Clearly, he [Obama] added, “part of the psychology of Iran is rooted in past experiences, the sense that their country was undermined, that the United States or the West meddled in first their democracy and then in supporting the Shah and then in supporting Iraq and Saddam during that extremely brutal war. So part of what I’ve told my team is we have to distinguish between the ideologically driven, offensive Iran and the defensive Iran that feels vulnerable and sometimes may be reacting because they perceive that as the only way that they can avoid repeats of the past.

In other words, acknowledging our past mistakes removes them as obstacles to be used against diplomatic efforts and cooperation. If your world view is based on the idea that dominance is the only form of power – that is a sign of weakness. But if you recognize that partnership is also a form of power (i.e., getting Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program without firing a shot), then building trust is critical.

This is what President Obama is doing in countries like Cuba, Argentina, Vietnam, and now Laos. He’s saying, “We hear you and are willing to take responsibility for what we’ve done.” As a child of the Cold War, that is exactly the kind of change I believe in.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.