When US President Barack Obama was in Europe two years ago, he visited the Irish village of Moneygall, because a man named Henry Healy lives there.
Obama didn't know Healy, and he had never been to Moneygall before. But genealogists had discovered that one of Healy's ancestors, who emigrated to the United States in 1850, was Obama's great-great-great-grandfather.
In this way Moneygall became a perfect platform for Obama, a year before his election to a second term. It enabled him to demonstrate how much family means to him and how seriously he takes his European roots. He celebrated trans-Atlantic ties in Ireland, just as other presidents had done before him: Bill Clinton, with his relatively inconsequential Irish roots, Ronald Reagan and the most Irish of all presidents, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Obama was in Moneygall for 90 minutes. He gave Healy a hug, as if he were a close family member, and bravely forced down a pint of Guinness. Healy, an accountant, was so proud that he hardly knew what to do with himself, and Obama did his best to create the impression that his remote European relative was equally important to him. At the time, Obama was also anxious to demonstrate that his relationship with the Europeans was as steadfast as that of his predecessors.
When Obama, 51, visits the Irish island again next week, he won't be visiting Moneygall again and Healy will likely be left watching on television as Obama arrives in Northern Ireland for the G-8 summit. Afterward, the president is set to travel to Berlin with his wife Michelle, to the place where former President John F. Kennedy gave a speech 50 years ago, one that was celebrated at the time with as much enthusiasm as Obama's visit to Moneygall.
It is Obama's ninth European trip as president, but only his first state visit to Berlin. It took him four-and-a-half years to pay his official visit to Germany, the undisputed dominant power in Europe. The trip carries a great deal of importance for the Germans.
Obama's visit this month and the memory of the Kennedy visit 50 years ago highlight the special relationship between Germans and Americans, but they also show how much the world has changed since then. Kennedy's trip to Berlin was an almost ecstatic celebration of the protection and defense alliance, while the visit by the no less charismatic current president will probably end up being a more or less unexciting family affair. "It's mostly political symbolism, nothing more," says a government official in Berlin.
The Obama who arrives in Berlin will be a somewhat reserved American acquaintance who stays only as long as necessary. He will stay at the Ritz-Carlton, and Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck will join him for relatively mundane meetings.
He will also finally hold a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, as he had hoped to do as a candidate in 2008. This time Chancellor Merkel, who is running for re-election, will have no objections, because his speech will focus on the "deep and lasting ties" between Germans and Americans, shared values and the trans-Atlantic alliance. In their conversations, however, the politicians' will hardly be addressing a new world order, but rather much more prosaic topics like the advantages of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the planned free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. One of the areas the agreement will cover is whether American chickens can be disinfected with chlorine for export to Europe, and which regulations should apply when European drugs are licensed for use in the United States.
Regulatory odds and ends instead of grand visions -- and yet when Obama, an American political superstar still largely unknown in Germany at the time, called upon Americans and Europeans to build "new bridges" around the globe at Berlin's Victory Column in the 2008 presidential election campaign, 200,000 listeners cheered enthusiastically. Even though it has since become clear that even Obama isn't perfect, the historical backdrop alone -- the Brandenburg Gate was a symbolic focal point of the Cold War -- will ensure that comparisons with Kennedy's triumphal visit will be unavoidable. On June 26, 1963, Kennedy, speaking on the steps of Rathaus Schöneberg, summed up the postwar trans-Atlantic alliance with four words: "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner).
The Promise of the Kennedy Years
It is ultimately their great speeches that have made both politicians so successful, speeches with which they have given hope to their country and the rest of the world. Next to the Berlin speech, Kennedy uttered some of his most memorable words in his 1961 inaugural address, when he said: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."
Obama spoke his most memorable words in his speech on race, his speech in Cairo and, not least, his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which made him famous overnight. At the time, he uttered a sentence that would become the great but still unfulfilled promise of his presidency: "There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America -- there's the United States of America." But that had been precisely the promise of the Kennedy years.
America has now managed without the Kennedys for quite some time. Others have dominated politics for more than a quarter century: Reagan, the Bushes and Bill Clinton. But the country, which yearned for reconciliation after the culture wars of past years, believed that Obama, the black senator from Illinois, who did not clearly represent one of the two camps, and was neither right nor left, would continue the Kennedy tradition. Obama placed pragmatism above ideology and promised to reach across party lines.
Like JFK, Obama is no zealot. His actions are not what fascinate people, but rather his personality, even beyond politics. At the time, people loved JFK because he brought a new kind of life into the White House, a more real life. Americans loved the photos of his son JFK Jr. playing underneath his father's desk, of Sweet Caroline with her ponytail and her pony Macaroni and, of course, everyone was fascinated by First Lady Jacqueline, by her style, her taste and her class. The photos made the name Kennedy a benchmark of the idea of a new and better world. Today many Americans love their Obamas, the first black president, his wife Michelle, the teenagers and their dog Bo. Like the Kennedys, the Obamas have become icons of a new era.
Obama sensed this yearning for an ideal world from the very beginning, when he gave his first campaign speech, in February 2007, at John F. Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He was playing for high stakes, making the historic claim that he could lead America into a new era, and he stuck to the script of the Kennedy years. It sounded presumptuous, cocky and a little flirtatious.
Notion of a Comeback
But Obama gave America the hope that he could deliver the country from the conflicts of the present -- those between rich and poor, between black and white and between the faithful and the agnostic. And he held out the prospect to large parts of the world that the aggressive realpolitik of his predecessor had served its time.
The deaths of John F. Kennedy and, five years later, his brother Robert, had suddenly destroyed the utopia associated with the name of America's first family. The Kennedys participated in the demise of that dream, as sex, drugs and alcohol transformed America's "First Family" into something far away from the ideal originally promised.
Which perhaps helps explain the enthusiasm for Obama, associated as it was with the notion of a comeback. Obama seized the opportunity and used the name that had become the benchmark of the idea of a new and better world. Like Kennedy, he gave his 2008 convention speech in a football stadium, and like Kennedy, he wrote a book that fascinated his country. He collaborated with Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, and appointed Caroline Kennedy, the only daughter of the murdered president, to the commission to select his vice-presidential candidate. She stood next to him in campaign appearances and said the words that infatuated America: That she had spent half her life waiting for this man -- a man who was so much like her father.
In this way, Obama became a symbol of the best possible future for the country, a young politician who was the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, born at a time when there were still states in the US that outlawed interracial marriage. He fulfilled the collective yearning for a new, friendlier America, one that is more open, tolerant and worldly, and for a new style of politics -- politics with a happy end.
Obama has now been in office for four-and-a-half years, but the promise remains unfulfilled. Just as Kennedy was unable to truly complete the transformation of his country, Obama has also been forced to disappoint. His supporters are particularly upset that he sometimes seems even more ruthless than his predecessor on issues of national security. And critics became even more vocal when the true scope of his administration's obsession with gathering personal data from the Internet was revealed last week.
Germany's Changing Relationship with the US
But America's allies have also scaled back their expectations, so that they don't even expect a second Kennedy, a man who brought the Berliners extensive security guarantees at the time. Today, almost 70 years after the end of World War II, and 20 years after the great changes that came to Europe with the end of the Soviet bloc and East-West rivalry, those guarantees have lost their immediacy. The confirmation of mutual friendship is astonishingly prosaic today. The chancellor, who hopes to gain prestige through Obama's visit, doesn't expect him to have anything new to say. And in truth, Germany doesn't need a new Kennedy speech. In fact, Obama would look ridiculous if he also claimed to be a Berliner. The trans-Atlantic friendship has become less emotional, and significantly less close, but also more mature and pragmatic.
Still, German diplomats had long awaited Obama's first state visit. With growing impatience, they had figured out how soon after their election other American presidents had come to Germany, and how much time Obama had allowed himself for this trip -- partly because he had little interest in subjecting himself to a comparison with Kennedy's triumphal march through Berlin.
Obama is the only US president in half a century not to visit Berlin (or, until 1999, Bonn) in the first few years of his term. Reagan, Clinton and even George W. Bush, whose defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, coined the term "Old Europe" for America's newly defiant allies, all visited Germany within the first two years of their presidencies.
But Obama is a different kind of president than his immediate predecessors, all of whom either served in World War II or were born shortly after the war ended. Obama, on the other hand, grew up in Hawaii in the 1960s, lived in Indonesia, traveled in Pakistan as a student and searched for his Kenyan father's roots in Africa.
No American president before him has unapologetically ignored the customs of the trans-Atlantic alliance as much as Obama. When the Europeans, prior to a planned EU-US summit in 2010, couldn't agree on who was to sit next to the American president and who was to shake his hand when, Obama cancelled his attendance at the last minute, officially for scheduling reasons.
Obama occasionally triggered irritation in Europe with minor diplomatic lapses. During his first official visit to the British royal court in 2009, the US president presented the flabbergasted monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, with an iPod loaded with pictures and videos of his host. In addition, his spokesman forgot to praise the "special relationship," the particularly close relationship between the two English-speaking nations on either side of the Atlantic, which has been invoked for decades and of which the British are so proud.
Europeans are still very sensitive when it comes to their interactions with America. In Berlin, the political debacle over the United Nations Security Council's Libya resolution two years ago remains an embarrassing memory. At the time, Germany was the only NATO country to abstain and, as a result, was suddenly isolated within the alliance. Berlin had expected Obama, who was initially opposed to intervention, to stand firm. But he ultimately relented under pressure from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Since then, the Germans have questioned Obama's reliability on key issues.
Just as the Americans are sometimes irritated over the still unaccustomed autonomy of their allies, the Europeans feel that they are not being taken seriously enough. At the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, for example, Obama went behind the Europeans' backs and negotiated compromises with China and the India that stood in the way of the true reforms Europe had advocated. The Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a symbol of the dark Bush years, which Obama still hasn't closed, despite having promised to do so, is a burden on the trans-Atlantic relationship, as is the drone war, in which the president alone decides who is to be considered America's enemy and can be liquidated by remote control.
But the German public takes little notice of the irritations of the political class, and it is willing to overlook some of Obama's failures, including his mixed record. The majority of Germans remain very enthusiastic about the US president, with a poll last fall showing that almost 90 percent wanted to see him re-elected.
Obama can claim dramatically higher approval ratings in Germany than the despised George W. Bush, but he is also more popular than Bill Clinton, who visited Germany six times in his eight years in office, ate pasta with then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and received a box of Cuban cigars from Kohl's successor, Gerhard Schröder, cigars he was in fact legally barred from accepting. Today such signs of personal familiarity no longer seem to be important. Neither Merkel nor her guest is fond of such ingratiating behavior. And besides, they are not the closest of friends.
Even after four-and-a-half years, Merkel has not developed a strong relationship with Obama. She sees the president as a man who makes many announcements but implements little. It has gotten around in Berlin that he isn't particularly interested in Europe, and the German government has low expectations of Obama's second term. The trans-Atlantic relationship has become more detached.
When Kennedy was president, Germany was a young, insecure democracy, an experiment in integrating the Germans into the West's community of values. The elderly Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was often careful to coordinate his policies with Washington during the early years of the Cold War, an approach that Kennedy characterized as "narrow, cautious and in the literal sense reactionary."
The young US president and his Democratic Party soon became a great role model for many Germans. Kennedy stood for goals with which they could identify: a country that was fundamentally committed to the concept of freedom but that, after proving its strength in the Cuban missile crisis, had now turned its attention to how it could make life safer in the shadow of a nuclear threat.
Kennedy seemed to be fashioning a country in which all social classes were to share in economic success, a country that sought to differentiate itself from unbridled capitalism and the religious fanaticism of American conservatives. At the time, Germany also needed Kennedy's America as a moral compass.
When Kennedy was elected, he was a hesitant president at first, but he grew with the enormity of the challenges of the day, and his tragic death in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 established the myth of the great Kennedy emergence into a more just future. His younger brothers, Robert and Ted, who took over his legacy, made the Kennedy name into a symbol of a new, more liberal America -- a European America, at least from Europe's perspective.
Heroes of the Past
Today the Kennedy name is mainly associated with the expansion of the American social welfare state, based on the foundation laid by his Democratic predecessor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in the New Deal. It was actually Kennedy's successor Lyndon B. Johnson who pushed the most important laws through Congress to introduce the Medicare and Medicaid health care programs, and who also fought the key battles to give equal rights to black Americans. But his standing was sucked down into the maelstrom of the Vietnam War, so that it was still the Kennedy name that stood for a more just America, for civil rights and for the equality of men and women.
The great movements of the 1960s -- the civil rights movement, the women's movement and the student revolts -- emerged from the ideas associated with his name, and the whole world, not just Germany, became mesmerized by this new, reform-minded America, which was Kennedy's legacy.
This America supplied the heroes of the 1960s, which Germany, the small, sedate and bourgeois republic, could not offer. The Germany of the 1960s was a country of sentimental films about the homeland and pop music. The Germans had Konrad Adenauer and his successor Ludwig Erhard, pop-crooner Rex Gildo and TV host Dieter Thomas Heck, while the Americans had John F. and Robert Kennedy, Elvis and the rebels of Woodstock.
Many of the goals that underscored the emotional bond between America and Europe at the time have now been reached, on both sides of the Atlantic. The East-West conflict is history, and there are no longer separate water fountains for blacks and whites in America. Women have better professional opportunities today. Only last week, Obama appointed his close advisor Susan Rice to be his new national security advisor, and political scientist Samantha Power to be ambassador to the UN. Gays and lesbians can marry or enter into civil unions in many states, and there is a social welfare state that is more worthy of the name.
At the same time Europe, once such a trigger-happy continent, has found peace. It has come to terms with the dark past of its wars, especially in Germany, and the rivalry between communism and capitalism that once divided the continent is over. Germany, the new European power, has long since outgrown its role as America's model pupil, and it no longer automatically looks across the Atlantic for advice.
The Last Kennedy
America is also no longer the sole measure of progress in Europe. And brass music and bratwursts, Heidelberg and Neuschwanstein Castle are no longer the first things people associate with Germany. Germany has Berlin, Europe's coolest city, and it has Berghain, one of the trendiest techno clubs. Beer drinkers in the United States who care about taste drink beer brewed in accordance with German purity laws, and New Yorkers now have 54 German beer gardens from which to choose. The more affluent don't drive Fords, Chryslers or Chevys, but rather Audis, Mercedes and BMWs.
Both sides have come closer to an equal partnership, and yet they are taken aback to discover that something has been lost in this relationship between Europe and America, as Roger Cohen writes in the New York Times, namely the "emotional core" of the trans-Atlantic project. A friend has been lost -- and is now returning as a partner. Is there truly no longer a shared vision, like the one that supported the friendship in Kennedy's day?
Much of what Obama achieved in his first term is grounded in the Kennedy tradition. The first important piece of legislation Obama signed into law after taking office in 2009 was a law on equal pay for men and women. With his vast healthcare reform, he ensured that all Americans are now required to have insurance coverage and thereby completed the American-style social welfare state. And, last but not least, his election, the election of America's first black president, also represented the fulfillment of a great dream of the Kennedy era. In this sense, Obama's administration stands at the end of the great promises Kennedy symbolized. Indeed, the first black president can also be seen as the last Kennedy.
When Obama entered the Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton in 2008 and then the general election against Republic candidate John McCain, it was a sort of déjà-vu, a rerun of 1960, a contest between the new America and the old America, between Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Obama now embodies the departure from the white dominant culture, an America in which new immigrants from Latin America are slowly becoming the majority and in which Spanish is joining English as the dominant language. But does this automatically mean that the old trans-Atlantic community of shared values is losing its importance? Does it mean that Europe must regard the decline of the old America with concern and greet Obama's new America with skepticism?
Should Europe Fear Obama?
In the election campaign, Obama portrayed himself as a global citizen, as a candidate who, unlike George W. Bush, would consult with America's partners in the world rather than ruthlessly pursuing America's interests. He promised a cooperative America.
Some Europeans were concerned that his willingness to cooperate would extend primarily to countries far away from Europe. Obama has even characterized himself as a "Pacific president," and he sees the country's foreign policy shift toward Asia as a political priority.
Does this mean that Europeans should fear Obama's America? It's a tricky question. Domestically, the fear of this new America has played into the hands of the reactionary Tea Party. The movement would prefer to see America distance itself from the old continent and behaves as if Europe were a part of the world devoid of freedom, like some monstrous Soviet Union. Its rhetoric makes it seem as though the Cold War never ended.
The Tea Party fights against the "tax state" and stricter gun laws, and it seeks to preserve a level of power for the United States that is no longer achievable. It is trying to take America back to the battles Kennedy fought and represents a reversal both domestically and in terms of the trans-Atlantic relationship. The movement, though, suffered a painful defeat in the last election.
The future belongs to Obama's America. Perhaps Kennedy's heirs understood this better than others when they endorsed Obama instead of Clinton as the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. Ted Kennedy, the last surviving brother at the time, campaigned for Obama, even using the words of the former president: "The world is changing. The old ways will not do. It's time for a new generation of leadership."
It was a powerful political benediction that gave Obama credibility and helped secure his election victory. But it was also intended as a signal that Obama's new America is comparable to the Kennedy ideal.
For Europe, this means that the close trans-Atlantic relationship is still there, but that it has changed fundamentally.
The relationship between modern-day Germany and America is no longer shaped by ecstatic, amorous memories of the 1960s, but instead is primarily influenced by the remaining shared interests. This has given both sides more freedom, now that they are no longer compelled to constantly repeat memorized pledges of eternal fidelity.
Despite their interlocking relationships, both sides must, for the most part, solve their own problems. Consequently, the Europeans have repeatedly bridled at American recommendations on what to do about the euro crisis. When then US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner appeared at a meeting with his EU counterparts in September 2011, they vented their displeasure over this guest from abroad. It was "odd" that the country that brought Europe its financial crisis in the first place was now trying to give it advice on how to resolve it, Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter said heatedly.
Meanwhile, the Europeans, like the Americans, are looking to Asia to solve their economic problems, or rather: they've been there for a while. The EU is now the largest export market for China and India.
The German Chancellery has made it clear to the White House that it has no objection to Obama talking about the importance of Asia, as he has often done in other speeches, and that Germany would not feel affronted as a result. This has de facto established what proponents of the trans-Atlantic relationship in Germany and Europe have always wanted, an alliance on equal footing. Currently, however, it is a connection between two powers on the defensive -- a partnership of convenience.
Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the marathon negotiations over the planned TTIP free trade agreement, to which Merkel also attaches great importance. The project has popped up in European-American debates for decades. Its advocates constantly point out that together, Europe and the United States account for about 50 percent of global GDP, 60 percent of worldwide research expenditures and 75 percent of all financial services -- and that US direct investment in Spain is still higher than it is in China.
Shifting toward Asia
The supporters of the TTIP expect the free trade agreement to create a great new trans-Atlantic future, as well as a possible bulwark against China as an economic superpower. But Obama's support for the project has been lukewarm, and only at the last minute did he decide to devote a sentence to the project in his February State of the Union address -- although he mentioned a planned free trade agreement with Pacific countries first.
European leaders are doing little to increase Obama's enthusiasm. France is insisting on exceptions to protect its film industry, the British want a firewall for London as a financial center and German farmers are fulminating against genetically modified corn from the US.
All sides will pay very close attention to the benefits they hope to derive from the agreement, and every detail will be contested. The days when both sides were joined together in a community of fate and could overlook minor issues are over. Europe must no longer fear Russian tanks, no matter how much Russian President Vladimir Putin bloviates, and American no longer has to defend the survival of the West in Berlin. The German monsters of the past, invoked only recently by protesters in Southern Europe's debt-ridden countries, are also not a valid argument anymore. The world no longer believes that Germany, this hesitant, medium-sized power, is interested in subjugating Europe once again.
The new threats to the allies on both sides of the Atlantic are more easily measured in sobering figures and statistics. In 25 years, the number of Europeans of working age will have declined by 7 percent, while the number of seniors over 65 will increase by 50 percent. Global wealth is already shifting toward Asia. According to a study by the Boston Consulting Group, private wealth in some Asian regions will be higher than in some parts of Europe in just five years.
America, for its part, is struggling with an unimaginable $16.7 trillion (€12.6 trillion) in sovereign debt, a number that makes even Europe's mountains of debt seem like mole hills. Admiral Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the national debt the "most significant threat to our national security."
This number also explains what the Wall Street Journal calls Obama's "retreat doctrine." His country is tired of war, and for the time being Obama is doing everything he can to avoid intervening militarily in the Middle East once again. The amount of money that China, America's biggest creditor, has pumped into the US is comparable to the Marshall Plan of old -- and is as important for the United States today as it once was for Europe. Conversely, the next crisis summit in Brussels could very well be more important for the Europeans than Obama's whirlwind visit.
So what will remain once Air Force One takes off homeward bound from Tegel Airport in Berlin on June 19? Everyday life.
Europe and America will continue to work together on a large number of economic, political and cultural projects. They are interwoven and connected by the millions of jobs with their multinational companies, by exchange programs and by the experiences the two continents have created, which still make their alliance stronger than any other alliance on the planet.
But gone are the days when the allies felt the need to impress each other, the way partners do who are just beginning to form tender bonds. That sort of behavior was on full display when Obama courted Chinese President Xi Jinping at an elaborate US-China summit last Friday. It was held at the Sunnylands estate near Palm Springs, a legendary, magnificent pink building in the California desert, once the winter home of the very wealthy Annenberg publishing family. Beijing is spying on American computers, and the Communist Party supports the regime in North Korea. But such unpleasant circumstances likely played no role at Sunnylands. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon made it clear in a press briefing that the goal was that of having the meeting "in a relaxed setting." It was like couples therapy under palm trees.
Europe cannot be China. But the old continent no longer depends on a beaming American hero in dark times, and certainly not on a savior. Indeed, that's a role the United States can no longer play in the 21st century, even if it wanted to.
Americans and Europeans know that they'll have to save themselves, but they also know that cooperation can't hurt.
BY HANS HOYNG, MARC HUJER, RALF NEUKIRCH and GREGOR PETER SCHMITZ