Berlin's Strasse des 17. Juni, the stretch of road extending west of the Brandenburg Gate and the location of the victory column where Barack Obama gave a widely anticipated campaign speech on Thursday, is often used for mega-events such as public viewing of international football championships and the Love Parade. Conventional wisdom in the run-up to Obama's rally held that it would be a similar sort of love parade—a blanket celebration by Germans of their new idol, and nothing short of a cakewalk for the Illinois senator, who would have to do little more than deliver a few truisms catering to their widespread aversion to the Bush administration to gain the sort of exultations Pope John Paul II would normally receive during his international tours. Germans, many American observers presumed, would in essence not be cheering for Obama, but against Bush.
Yet conventional wisdom was proven wrong on both counts. Generally favorable towards Obama, many of the attendees we spoke to during the rally indicated they had come to hear the speech out of curiosity and interest in politics, rather than a specific desire to admire the presidential nominee. When asked about what changes in transatlantic relations they would expect under an Obama presidency, most people surveyed for our video gave a rather pragmatic assessment, suggesting a definite improvement in ties, but no radical deviation from the greater continuity of US foreign policy.
Atlantic-community.org interviews with attendees of the Obama speech in Berlin (15min):
Video in German:
Interview mit Klaus Staeck, Grafikdesigner, Karikaturist, Jurist und Präsident der Akademie der Künste (3min):
Video of Barack Obama's speech below (25min). Transcript here.
On the other hand, Obama also steered clear of potshots and pandering, and instead focused on setting out a broad vision for the transatlantic alliance that is both ambitious and challenging, calling on Europe, and Germany specifically, to take a greater initiative on issues of global governance and shared security. Well aware of the historic symbolism of the city, Obama used phrasing from the famous Berlin speeches by Ernst Reuter, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, to connect the ideological clash of the cold war with the post-9/11 war on terror, and frame both within the greater historic struggle for liberty, thereby reappropriating one of the pet themes of conservatives.
Congruently, Barack Obama views American values as universal, and America as the quintessential global leader with a mission to uphold and defend democratic principles in the world. However, this ambition should no longer be singular to the United States, but needs to be shared by all its democratic allies, whom he calls common "heirs to a struggle for freedom."
Indeed, Germans firmly share a belief in these values, and it is precisely because Obama, through his charisma and sophistication, is able to restore some of the trust eroded during the last eight years, that he is able to generate so much enthusiasm. Obama's popularity in Germany is not based on him being the anti-Bush, but on his ability to reaffirm belief in ideals cheapened through the hypocrisy of the Bush administration. Germans favor Obama, not because he will set American foreign policy on a different course, but because they expect him to return it to its traditional path—a constellation they are comfortable with.
Obama, however, expects more from Germany than convenience.
Written by Ben Heine