July 24, 2008

Obama on the World Stage

After the American Century

Obama stood on the world stage for the first time in Berlin, and judging by the crowd's reaction, he was a great success. The talking heads on screen afterward tried to find critical things to say, which is their job. But rather than trying to summarize their remarks, let us review the main points.

1. Obama came out with no one to introduce him. There was no build up or fan-fare, no drum rolls. He simply came out. This is a humble way to present yourself, without any of the trappings of a head of state.

2. Obama connected his remarks at many points with German history and experiece, giving a speech that obviously was created for this specific time and place. I may have missed something, but I believe that we are still waiting for John McCain to give a major speech anywhere on any subject.

3. Obama was not merely throwing pretty remarks at the Germans. He reminded them that some of the terrorists who struck on 9/11 had been students in Hamburg, but he did this in such a skillful way that it did not rouse commentary afterwards, nor apparently cause offense. Obama's point was that the globalized world demands unified action, that borders - walls - are now dysfunctional. He also called on Germany to contribute to the military effort in Afghanistan. This is not such a popular position in that country.

4. Obama did not make specific policy proposals, as I hoped he might (see the last blog). But in retrospect, I can see that getting specific is perhaps inappropriate at this stage, when he is still a candidate. So he called for an end to torture, but did not mention Guantanamo. He called for unified actions against global warming, and praised the German efforts in this regard, but he did not get into details. He asked for a united effort against drugs, terrorism, and racism. Again, I can see that the commentators would have jumped on him for acting like the head of state had he been too detailed about any of these matters. This speech was about vision, not the details of implementation.

5. There were some fine rhetorical passages in the speech, but it does not appear that there is one line that is destined for quotation in years to come. But the general level of the speech was high, far higher than anything either of the Bush presidents ever attained, and better than what John McCain can muster.

When he was finished, Obama left the podium as simply as he arrived there. There was no music or follow-up speaker. He went down to shake hands with people in the front of the crowd. Overall, he showed that he has the stature and the charisma needed to recover the American image abroad. When was the last time 200,000 people turned out anywhere abroad to hear an American leader speak? Actually, the largest crowd to hear any candidate speak during the primaries was 75,000, for Obama in Oregon. I do not recall anything like it for many years. One has to go back to Reagan to find an equivalent moment.

The full text of Obama's speech can be found on CNN