July 24, 2008

What Obama Should Say in Berlin

After the American Century

Tonight Obama will address a large outdoor crowd in Berlin. No one seems to know how many will come to hear him, but estimates range as high as one million. If the weather is good, that is distinctly possible. So far on this journey Obama has done exceedingly well, apparently making a particularly positive impression in Iraq and Jordan, yet solidifying his support for Israel at the same time. The most difficult part of his trip might seem to be over, since Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel are all troubled nations that present severe foreign policy problems.

By comparison, Germany, France, and Great Britain might look easy. But they are not necessary a doddle. Some of the Germans are prickly about becoming a backdrop to the American campaign, including Angela Merkel. It is thus essential that Obama not appear to be campaigning, that he address his German audience first, and deliver only a good sound bite for the Americans. Who remembers what else John F. Kennedy said in Berlin besides "Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is Ich bin ein Berliner"? (An uncharitable and perhaps slightly inaccurate translation of this remark into Danish would read ... the proudest boast is that "I am a donut.") So for the Americans, all he needs is a pithy one-liner, preferably followed by a roar of cheering and applause. For the Europeans, in contrast, there needs to be some substance.

What might Obama say? He has 300 foreign policy advisors and a clever staff, so they have assuredly thought of more things than I can this morning, but here is a short list of possibilities, other than the obvious need to say thank you for the opportunity to come and a few words about the strong ties between the two nations, etc etc. In any case, this is what I think Obama ought to say. It is a bit tricky for him, because he must seem to speak as a powerful Senator, representing the Democratic Party, and not as a presidential candidate.

(1) The EU has been a tremendous economic success. It is a tribute to earlier American foreign policy, of the sort that needs to be recovered. That foreign policy promoted dialogue, peaceful economic development, and the dismantaling of militaristic nationalism. A region plagued by major wars for hundreds of years until 1945 has now been at peace for more than 60 years. in another generation, no one will be alive that personally remembers World War II. The EU is therefore a model for the rest of the world, and the proudest boast of a Berliner today is that he or she is a citizen of the EU. [He did say much of this, in fact.]

(2) The US needs to listen more to its allies. It should have listened to Germany on Iraq. It needs to be a partner, not an overbearing leader. [Of these three sentences, he said one and three, more or less, but did not specifically mention German opposition to the Iraq invasion.]

(3) The base in Guantanamo should be closed. Five previous secretaries of state, Republicans and Democrats, have called for it to be shut down, and John McCain, as a former prisoner of war, is no fan of the Cuban base either. This would also be popular with the German audience. [He did call for an end to torture, but did not specifcally mention Gauntanamo.]

(4) The US needs to work with the EU to deal with global warming, where the Bush Administration has obstructed progress. Germany is an inspiring example of what can be done with alternative energy, as it has some of the world's largest wind farms and solar arrays. If a northern nation with often cloudy weather can do so much, clearly the US can do even more in the arid but sunny West and the windy Great Plains. (He might mention Al Gore's 10 year plan, but probably he will not do so explicitly.) [He did say much of this.]

(5) The educational exchanges between Europe and America are important and need to be strengthened. Under the Bush Administration the landmark Fulbright Program has been cut back. It should be given far more funding and added scope. Educational exchanges not only strengthen the cultural bonds between our continents, they lead to the synergies of innovation. [He said nothing about this.]

(6) The EU and the US must stand firmly together in confronting global terrorism. At the same time, they must use economic assistance and cultural programs to create a better context for dialogue. The common goal must be to allow a multicultural world to live in peace. [These ideas were central to his speech.]

I am not predicting he will say any of these things, but he ought to. We will see. [Many of the themes mentioned here were in the speech, but of course I did not attempt to imagine the metaphors he might use. The dominant image was that of breaking down walls, which made German historical experience a symbol of hope. This is not always the lesson drawn from German history, and it made the crowd feel good.]