Obama's Berlin Speech: People of the World, Look at Me

By in Berlin

The people of Berlin experienced the full range of Barack Obama's charisma on Thursday evening. At times he was reserved, at others engaging. Sometimes combative, and also demanding. Ultimately, though, the message he delivered at the Siegessäule was meant for audiences back home.

Berliners spent the whole day trying to catch a glimpse of Barack Obama. But the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate was hard to catch. First, he drove into the underground garage at the luxuriuos Hotel Adlon. Then, at his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he escaped from the photographers by just seconds. The rumor that he had spent the afternoon working out at the hotel gym took on all the significance of an Elvis sighting.

Until 7:21 p.m., that is.

That's when an estimated 200,000-strong crowd finally got to see the candidate in the flesh. And it seemed as if the prominent guest wanted to make amends for the day's game of hide and seek. It was as if four different Obamas made an appearance at Berlin's Victory Column -- in the space of less than 30 minutes.

It began with the soft and slow Obama. The senator walked up as resiliently and athletically to the microphone as he did for his campaign speeches in Iowa, Mississippi and California. But there was a key difference -- in those states, the purpose of his speeches was always clear. In Berlin, however, a discussion has been raging for two weeks about the purpose of his appearance: Would it be a campaign stump speech, a dress rehearsal for a future world statesman or a keynote address?

Obama began his speech with sentences about what he claimed not to be -- at least for this one Thursday in Berlin: He was neither appearing here as a candidate nor a typical American. Instead, he claimed to be a "proud citizen of the United States and a fellow citizen of the world." He added: "I know that I don’t look like the Americans who've previously spoken in this great city. My mother was born in the heartland of America, but my father grew up herding goats in Kenya. His father, my grandfather, was a cook for the British." It's a life story that would not have been possible without the freedom of the West.

And then he elegantly turned to the theme of Berlin. He had been heavily criticized for only wanting nice TV images in front of the Brandenburg Gate. In Obama's words, however, the choice of the city seemed completely logical. "This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom. … In the darkest hours, the people of Berlin kept the flame of hope burning. The people of Berlin refused to give up," he said. Obama called upon the people of the world to look at this city. That bit was lifted from Ernst Reuter, the former mayor of West Berlin, but it was a good quote to steal -- and it applies well to trans-Atlantic relations. "Berlin is where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other."

And then suddenly we had Obama No. 2, the trans-Atlantic bridge builder.

It has become easy to miss the truth, the senator said. "There is a feeling in Europe that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world," while Americans don’t listen to Europe any more. Then he said the words that are often spoken at trans-Atlantic conferences, but are rarely uttered by ordinary European or American citizens and politicians: "Now is the time to build new bridges." And that there is a need for allies "who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other." And finally: "America has no better partner than Europe."

That was the night's carrot for the Europeans. But it was quickly followed by the soft stick, wielded by Obama No. 3: The crafty election campaigner.

Obama's advisors had long feared that his speech would play off as too "European" back home in the US. So it was peppered with phrases that could easily have been uttered by current US President George W. Bush. The aim was singular: to present the Europeans with a clear picture of the new challenges of the 21st century.

Obama spoke about terrorists who studied at university in Hamburg. About poorly secured nuclear material in Russia that could fall into the wrong hands and be used in Paris. About poverty in Somalia that could breed the terror of tomorrow.

Certainly, in this part of the speech, Obama made allowances for issues he knew would play well with Europeans. He dreamt of a world without nuclear weapons. He established a new tenor on the issue of climate change, which the current US administration continued to deny even existed until only recently. "Let us resolve that all nations, including my own, will act with the same seriousness of purpose as has your nation, and reduce the carbon we send into our atmosphere," he said. The line drew the greatest applause of any other sentence he delivered in his speech.

But then he mentioned the demands people in Europe had been expecting from his speech:

  • More European aid in Afghanistan. "America can not do this alone," he said. "The Afghan people need our troops and your troops."

  • Additional European support in Iraq: "The whole world should support the millions of Iraqis who seek to rebuild their lives, even as we pass responsibility to the Iraqi government and finally bring this war to a close."

  • Greater European participation in the war on terror -- which won't end under a President Obama, either. "If we could create NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London and Bali; in Washington and New York."

But what, precisely, was that supposed to mean? How many troops in Afghanistan? What kind of support for Iraq? And what will his new strategy against terrorists entail?

So far Obama has provided scarce details --- and he has generated criticism in the US for not being more forthcoming with his ideas. For days now, his advisors have been warning that Obama is still just a presidential candidate and not the president. As such, he can only speak generally about his vision, and he can't make any concrete policy proposals. But perhaps he also went too far in announcing that this was going to be a "keynote speech on trans-Atlantic" relations.

Nevertheless, it could be that the trans-Atlantic relationship right now needs a new tenor more than it needs new political projects. The degree to which tensions in the relationship have developed in recent years was illustrated by lines Obama gave in his speech that under normal circumstances would be self-evident, like: "The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand." Or even better: "We will reject torture." The crowd erupts into applause.

In the end, though, such acclaim only serves to awaken Obama No. 4: The save-the-world orator who has packed his speeches at home with that kind of rhetoric. In the final minutes of his address, Obama called out to the audience: "We must come together to save this planet."

"This is the moment to give our children back their future. … This is the moment to stand as one."

"This is our time."

"Let us remember this history, and answer our destiny."

The sentences grew louder and louder; they started to drown out the applause. At the end of most of his speeches in the US, Obama tells his audience that he loves them. But in Berlin he just said "thank you." For a moment, it was plausible to think that he wanted to quickly launch a global transformation through this crowd of 200,000 listeners. But the speech wasn't truly aimed at the audience assembled at the Siegessäule.

While Obama shouted the last few lines of his speech into the crowd, his handlers were already escorting the members of the press that travel with him down from the guest stands. The journalists would be given a few moments to speak with Obama. They were all Americans, all 40 of them. CNN, the New York Times, Newsweek, the Chicago Sun-Times. Members of the foreign press were explicitly unwelcome. The target audience was America. Sorry, Berlin.

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