SEN. BARACK OBAMA said in an interview the day after his Berlin speech that it “allowed me to send a message to the American people that the judgments I have made and the judgments I will make are ones that are going to result in them being safer.”
If that is what the senator thought he was doing, he still has a lot to learn about both foreign policy and the views of the American people. Although well received in the Tiergarten, the Obama speech actually reveals an even more naive view of the world than we had previously been treated to in the United States. In addition, although most of the speech was substantively as content-free as his other campaign pronouncements, when substance did slip in, it was truly radical, from an American perspective.
These troubling comments were not widely reported in the generally adulatory media coverage given the speech, but they nonetheless deserve intense scrutiny. It remains to be seen whether these glimpses into Obama’s thinking will have any impact on the presidential campaign, but clearly they were not casual remarks. This speech, intended to generate the enormous publicity it in fact received, reflects his campaign’s carefully calibrated political thinking. Accordingly, there should be no evading the implications of his statements. Consider just the following two examples.
First, urging greater U.S.-European cooperation, Obama said, “The burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together.” Having earlier proclaimed himself “a fellow citizen of the world” with his German hosts, Obama explained that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Europe proved “that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.”
Perhaps Obama needs a remedial course in Cold War history, but the Berlin Wall most certainly did not come down because “the world stood as one.” The wall fell because of a decades-long, existential struggle against one of the greatest totalitarian ideologies mankind has ever faced. It was a struggle in which strong and determined U.S. leadership was constantly questioned, both in Europe and by substantial segments of the senator’s own Democratic Party. In Germany in the later years of the Cold War, Ostpolitik -- “eastern politics,” a policy of rapprochement rather than resistance -- continuously risked a split in the Western alliance and might have allowed communism to survive. The U.S. president who made the final successful assault on communism, Ronald Reagan, was derided by many in Europe as not very bright, too unilateralist and too provocative.
But there are larger implications to Obama’s rediscovery of the “one world” concept, first announced in the U.S. by Wendell Willkie, the failed Republican 1940 presidential nominee, and subsequently buried by the Cold War’s realities.
The successes Obama refers to in his speech -- the defeat of Nazism, the Berlin airlift and the collapse of communism -- were all gained by strong alliances defeating determined opponents of freedom, not by “one-worldism.” Although the senator was trying to distinguish himself from perceptions of Bush administration policy within the Atlantic Alliance, he was in fact sketching out a post-alliance policy, perhaps one that would unfold in global organizations such as the United Nations. This is far-reaching indeed.
Second, Obama used the Berlin Wall metaphor to describe his foreign policy priorities as president: “The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes; natives and immigrants; Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.”
This is a confused, nearly incoherent compilation, to say the least, amalgamating tensions in the Atlantic Alliance with ancient historical conflicts. One hopes even Obama, inexperienced as he is, doesn’t see all these “walls” as essentially the same in size and scope. But beyond the incoherence, there is a deeper problem, namely that “walls” exist not simply because of a lack of understanding about who is on the other side but because there are true differences in values and interests that lead to human conflict. The Berlin Wall itself was not built because of a failure of communication but because of the implacable hostility of communism toward freedom. The wall was a reflection of that reality, not an unfortunate mistake.
Tearing down the Berlin Wall was possible because one side -- our side -- defeated the other. Differences in levels of economic development, or the treatment of racial, immigration or religious questions, are not susceptible to the same analysis or solution. Even more basically, challenges to our very civilization, as the Cold War surely was, are not overcome by naively “tearing down walls” with our adversaries.
Throughout the Berlin speech, there were numerous policy pronouncements, all of them hazy and nonspecific, none of them new or different than what Obama has already said during the long American campaign. But the Berlin framework in which he wrapped these ideas for the first time is truly radical for a prospective American president. That he picked a foreign audience is perhaps not surprising, because they could be expected to welcome a less-assertive American view of its role in the world, at least at first glance. Even anti-American Europeans, however, are likely to regret a United States that sees itself as just one more nation in a “united” world.
The best we can hope for is that Obama’s rhetoric was simply that, pandering to the audience before him, as politicians so often do. We shall see if this rhetoric follows him back to America, either because he continues to use it or because Sen. John McCain asks voters if this is really what they want from their next president.