Buttons with the image of Democratic US presidential contender Barack Obama, some tittled ‘Obamafest’ others provided with the date of the politician’s visit in Berlin, Germany, 24 July 2008. The souvenirs are being sold near Berlin’s Victory Column, where Obama gave a public speech about his idea of the future transatlantic relations later in the day. EPA/GERO BRELOER
Barack Obama delivers a largely successful speech to a massive crowd in Berlin
BARACK OBAMA set himself a difficult task for his extraordinary appearance in Berlin on Thursday July 24th. He said that he came not to campaign but to deliver a “substantive address” on the pointy-headed subject of trans-Atlantic relations.
Yet the crowd was expected to number in the tens of thousands. The listeners were mainly European, but the real audience was in America. He needed to tell voters what they want to hear, while rousing those who had flocked to see him. He sought to remind people of American presidents who had become legends by winning Berliners’ hearts and minds, but could not afford to appear presumptuous.
In the end he largely pulled it off, though the speech was not quite as substantive as advertised. The police estimated that 200,000 people—perhaps the largest live audience that Mr Obama has ever addressed—thronged the boulevard that stretches between the Prussian Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate. Despite jams at the entrances and poor reception at the back of the crowd, most did not appear to be disappointed. He was “cosmopolitan, not only American,” said Garunya Karunahramoorthy, a student of international relations from Berlin. “He’s a world citizen”. In bowing to a foreign audience, Mr Obama seemed to give new life to the idea of the American century.
Mr Obama achieved that by fusing an older tradition of American beneficence with a contemporary emphasis on multilateralism, which he was careful to call “partnership”. The Berlin setting gave him a chance to make partnership seem the most patriotic thing in the world, and he exploited it to the full. He began by reminding Berliners that America had helped them to break the Soviet-imposed blockade of 1948-49 and to knock down the Berlin wall four decades later. But he acknowledged that the relationship had lately become troubled. “On both sides of the Atlantic, we have drifted apart”, he admitted. Europe began to see America “as part of what has gone wrong”, overlooking its sacrifices for “freedom around the world”. And America, he confessed, “had made our share of mistakes”.
The bits of Mr Obama’s rhetoric that were most popular with the locals were aimed at convincing them that America would make fewer mistakes in an Obama presidency. It would “reject torture and stand for the rule of law”, strive for “a world without nuclear weapons” and follow the Germans’ example in setting ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions that cause global warming. The American Mars would no longer trample the sensitivities of the European Venus. “America has no better partner than Europe”, he declared.
If Mr Obama had left it at that, his Republican rivals might have put together a case that he was keener to defend European values than American ones. But he was staunch in defence of American interests, and made it plain that partnership would come with a price. “We must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it”, he declared. “Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions.” But the United States cannot accomplish such tasks on its own. And that means that reluctant Europeans—Germans in particular—will have to contribute more than they have done to such ventures as the war in Afghanistan. “My country and yours have a stake in seeing that Nato’s first mission beyond Europe’s borders is a success.”
Participants in Mr Obama’s meetings with German chancellor Angela Merkel and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier report that he charmed and impressed them. The throng was also content, although one man rightly wondered “how he could deliver” on everything he promised.
Mr Obama’s view of the world is no sunnier than George Bush’s: it is equally menaced by terrorists and weapons of mass destruction and genocide and more so by global warming. But Mr Obama promises—in fact demands—a more co-operative approach to solving such problems. New walls threaten to divide religions, tribes and classes. The answer, he said, attempting to sound like Kennedy and Reagan rolled into one, is to tear them down.