Obama took the oath of office yesterday to become the 44th President of the United States. The swearing-in was followed by his inaugural address, historically an opportunity for incoming presidents to be visionary and inspirational. Some of the most famous quotes in US political history are from inaugural addresses, such as JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" (1961) and FDR's "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself" (1933).
So how did Obama do? Was it a new landmark in the US rhetorical hall-of-fame? If you were looking to be inspired, this speech probably fell short. He covered all the key issues and took a "it's busines time" tone, but it did not quite carry the poetic and inspiring overtures that an inaugural address could. Or perhaps like many Americans and citizens of the world I have come to expect miracles from Obama at every turn, and have thereby set myself up for disappointment. The full text of the speech can be found here.
Obama did have powerful words for non-Americans around the globe:
As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expediences sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.
Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.
We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort -- even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet.
We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.
For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.
To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their societys ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.
To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.
To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the worlds resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.
Now that President Obama is official, what are the big transatlantic relations issues he will face in 2009? Soeren Kern of the Madrid-based Strategic Studies Group argues there are eight major transatlantic relations issues in the coming year, a list that will not come as a surprise to regular Atlantic Review readers (World Politics Review):
3. European-based Missile Defense
5. Climate Change
6. Global Economics
7. Arab-Israeli Conflict
Do you agree with this list? My feeling is that Russia-West relations will continue to be one of the most divisive issues in transatlantic relations, though maybe less caustic in 2009 than 2008 considering a) there may be an Obama-Russia honeymoon period, b) there is unlikely to be any big moves to bring Ukraine and Georgia closer to NATO membership after an exhausting and testy 2008, c) Obama doesn't seem as keen on European missile defense as Bush, and d) it is plain scary to imagine Russia-West relations falling even lower than they are now. It is broadly recognized that 2008 has been the worst in U.S.-Russia relations since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, as asserted by a recent Brookings report, "Reversing the Decline: An Agenda for U.S.-Russian Relations in 2009."
I also wonder what Obama policies Europeans are most concerned about? The other day a Belgian friend explained to me that the average European is not concerned about Obama asking for more troops in Afghanistan or how he will handle Iran, but rather how he will address the economic crisis. Perhaps the famous words of another American president will define transatlantic relations in 2009: "It's the economy, stupid".