I admit that I got chills up my spine when I heard that 200,000 people showed up to hear Barack Obama speak in Berlin. I don’t know what it feels like to have almost a quarter of a million living, breathing human beings, spread out in front of you off into the distance, hanging on your every word. For that matter, there probably aren’t too many people alive who know what that feels like. But I imagine it’s not you’re ordinary, everyday kind of adrenaline rush. (The only video I found so far of the event is kind of anti-climactic, though, since the audience is a little offbeat in their applause, probably due to the language barrier, but also due to the sheer time it took for the sound to reach them, and it seemed to hamper Obama’s delivery.)
Anyway, I read a transcript of the speech, and truth be told wasn’t that impressed. It hits all the right notes in terms of repairing the mistrust within the trans-Atlantic alliance, which Obama implicitly but correctly identifies as existing on a popular level. (The arrival of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy has already largely repaired the damage on a political level.) The two areas where he got bold were on global warming (on which he basically said, “Our bad, we’ll get it right next time.”), and Afghanistan, where he called for Europe and NATO to double down. On the first, I’m in agreement, on the second, I’m not.
After years of using the removal of military resources from Afghanistan as a club to beat the Bush administration over the head with for its conduct of the war in Iraq, Democrats (and increasingly Republicans) have come to believe that with more troops in Afghanistan we can achieve our objectives. I’m far from convinced that that’s the case, and think that the claims of how important success there is to NATO’s future are exagerrated.
More practically, calling for greater troop contributions from Europe ignore the fact that it’s not going to happen. England’s looking to reduce its engagement, Germany has already ponied up, and France has already downsized the contingent it committed to send at the April NATO summit.
The Afghanistan reference is pure Obama, who often uses his privileged iconic position to deliver a gentle chiding lecture. In that, it might disabuse his German listeners of what Josef Joffe calls in The New Republic “their infatuation with Obama”:
After Inauguration Day, alas, Europe and the world will not face a Dreamworks president, but the leader of a superpower. Whether McCain or Obama, the 44th president will speak more nicely than did W. in his first term. He will also pay more attention to the “decent opinions of mankind.” But he will still preside over the world’s largest military, economic, and cultural power.
Finally, Obama closed with a call to “remake the world once again,” a theme that I’m not terribly comfortable with. The speech probably works from a political perspective, in that by making demands of Europe and not assuming unilateral responsibility for the challenges the trans-Atlantic alliance has faced, he hasn’t provided John McCain with any ammunition to use against him. It also probably did nothing to diminish his popularity in Europe. But if Afghanistan becomes central to Obama’s European policy, he’s in for some tough sledding.
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