What you thought of Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin depends largely on what you thought of him beforehand.
If you have been swept up by Obamamania, the specter of 200,000 Germans cheering an American, waving American flags, without so much as a whiff of protest is such a happy contrast from the upside-down U.S. flags being burnt that have greeted our incumbent president when he travels abroad, that you were confirmed in your suspicion that, as Obama said in his speech, “this is our moment.”
If you find Obama somewhat callow, a little wet behind the ears, even a little presumptuous in thinking he is ready to be president after having served only four years in the Senate, that his campaign is all stagecraft, then you found his thematic speech in Berlin devoid of content, lacking in the nuts and bolts of policy-making that will be needed to actually repair our alliances abroad.
No telling yet how it will play among the undecided voters who are the ones who matter most now. Obama needed to check the box next to “foreign policy credentials” and this week-long trip has given him the chance to do so. The election in November will likely be decided on economic issues, but there are certain professional and character thresholds that must be crossed. Obama’s sweeping historical references, especially his invocation of the Berlin Airlift, the most singularly successful peaceful policy of the Cold War, certainly helped him establish his foreign policy bona fides.
Many people, especially Catholics, might have preferred a different venue for his speech than the Victory Column in Berlin’s Tiergarten, commemorating Prussia’s victory over France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. That war finished with the proclamation of a united German Empire and I confess, being of Polish ancestry, to sharing the convictions of a post-World War II French politician who said (I paraphrase): “I love Germany so much I hope there will always be two.” The column is a tribute to the victory of Bismark, whose Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church was a foretaste of how state tyranny would attack Catholicism in the 20th century. That said, one of the side consequences of that war was the withdrawal of French troops from their garrison in papal Rome, which led the way to the death of the Papal States. Despite the Vatican’s protests for fifty years, shedding that secular responsibility was one of the best things to ever happen to the papacy.
The site was also strangely at odds with the speech. Obama called for tearing down walls, for recognizing that efforts at peace are often more lastingly successful than victories in war. For that message, perhaps he should have gone to Sacre Coeur, the basilica on Montmartre that overlooks Paris and was also built to commemorate the Franco-Prussian War. But, Sacre Coeur was built in reparation, as a sign of repentence for the sins that led to the scourge of war. Giving a foreign policy speech there would certainly be a new kind of faith-based initiative!
In the end, the speech left me tepid at best, except to the brilliance of Obama’s campaign. The visuals were powerful. You knew that the evening newscast would be comparing Obama’s speech to John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963. But, when Obama said the conscience of the West was being weighed and found wanting in Darfur, and invoked the frightful memory of the Holocaust with the words “never again,” applying that memory to Darfur, certainly he owed us a bit of explanation as to how he intended to end the genocide there. He spoke movingly about the need to combat global warming but, again, without many specifics. On the other hand, Obama’s riff on immigration, on the need to recognize the human dignity of immigrants, was powerful and important in the heart of Europe where immigration debates are even uglier than they are here.
Obama is asking a lot of Americans if he expects us to bet the future on his campaign’s ability to stage good visuals or his ability to charm 200,000 Germans. As another postwar French politician, Prime Minister Anatole France, said, “If a million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” Obama is smart and gifted (and so is his staff) and Lord knows he is popular abroad. But, it is time for specifics.
Michael Sean Winters