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By Giving a Speech in Berlin, Obama is Playing with Fire

This is a guest post by the US journalist David Francis:

As a journalist who covers U.S-European relations and as a U.S. citizen who hopes for better relations with Europe in the next administration, it was quite gratifying to see so many Berliners waving American flags to greet U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama in Tiergarten yesterday.

Too often in the last eight years, Germany has greeted American politicians with disinterest, disdain or worse. The images of Obama standing in front of hundreds of thousands of cheering Germans are spectacular and a reminder that an American politician is still welcome on foreign shores. Many believe Obama's German reception is a harbinger of things to come.

There is a general sense in the media and among Obama campaign volunteers I've spoken with that if Obama were to win the presidency there would be a sea change in European-U.S. relations. One volunteer I met with recently said the feeling inside the campaign was that an Obama presidency would start a new age of cooperation between the United States and countries like Germany and that many of the disagreements of the past eight years would be set aside. A new course would be charted with both sides agreeing on the way forward.

It is easy to understand why this volunteer believes in this cooperation after seeing the reception Obama received in Berlin. However, this reception needs to be put into context. Obama's message of change is one that is embraced by Germans, who vehemently opposed the large majority, if not all, of George W. Bush¹s policies. Therefore, any change is a welcome change, especially if it comes in the form of a charismatic figure like Obama.

However, Obama's popularity should not be interpreted as a shift in German policy towards the United States. Many officials I spoke with while reporting from Berlin earlier this year said Germany will continue to act in its own interests no matter who is in the White House. Any debt owed to the United States for its role in ending the Cold War has been paid in full, they said. It is doubtful that Germany, if Obama is elected, would send more troops to Afghanistan, as this idea is wildly unpopular with the German public. Nor would the German government decide to scuttle the Baltic Sea pipeline. Both of these moves would be more in line with U.S. policy. Obama might be as popular as Elvis, but even the King couldn¹t wean Germany off of Russian energy.

Two more things to consider:

First, an Obama victory is not guaranteed. It is obvious that he is the popular choice among the chattering classes and the foreign policy community in the United States. But so was John Kerry four years ago. Obama might be popular on U.S. coasts, but U.S. elections are won along the Rust Belt in the Midwest, the steel factory workers in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and the rural South. This part of the country is still undecided on Obama.

Second, the Republicans could use this speech as a way to portray Obama as out-of-touch with working class Americans. Kerry answered one question in French during the 2004 campaign, and within weeks, the Republican public relations machine had many voters convinced that the democratic nominee was actually from France. There is always a danger in a modern-day presidential candidate appearing as "too European." By giving a speech in Berlin, Obama is playing with fire.

There is little doubt that the next U.S. president will be more welcome than George W. Bush has been in Europe and around the world. However, it is important to remember that any U.S. president not named Bush would receive a hero's welcome abroad. My hope for the next U.S. president, whether it is Republican nominee John McCain or Obama, is that they can repair the relationships that have been battered over the last eight years. A more friendly dialogue would lead to a more honest policy discussion and allow the United States to better understand its European allies and discover areas where the two sides can once again move forward together.

David Francis received a John C. McCloy Journalism Fellowship to report on the European Union's growing dependence on Russian energy and its effect on transatlantic relations. Learn more about him at his homepage.

Previously, David has written this post for Atlantic Review in March 2008: In Berlin, Outrage Over Nord Stream Deal Seems to Have Died


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franchie on :

I am afraid that Obama is already categorised as a "French" he said "Merci beaucoup" in a discourse The health and social policy in his program is interpretated as "french"... Though I don't see that the Frenchs empathy as much as the Germans with his personnality

Joe Noory on :

You may be able to find some comment made by someone somewhere on the internet, but it's ridiculously self-important to think that he's been catagorized in a way that gives the French some reason to dwell on themselves in reference to anything going on in the world. On DW, I'm listening to people do much the same in placing as great an importance to the US a speech in *their* capitol is. It's cute, but incredibly misguided. It also speaks toi an inflated notion of European self-importance: they will spend at least the next two decades focussed almost entirely on "building Europe" and won't engage with global issues in much of a real way. The trend will still lead toward symbolic excercises to talk up an international cred/real policy/capacity that the EU doesn't yet have. In fact with a public which in many ways is isolationist, they may never really develop it. Reduced to mediation shows and trade delegations will not keep people convinced for very long.

franchie on :

that's why his advisers told him not to be grandiloquent in France, that could cost him the office, as it did for Kerry, thas was too much connoted "french" yeah, we are the antithesis obsession even for the Dems !!!! LMAO

Zyme on :

There is a nice online survey at (conservative national newpaper) about Obama`s visit in Germany, asking "whether the attention to Obama's visit is justified". Of 3733 people taking part, 9 % say "Of course, he is the next American President" 18.27 % say "Too much noise about a senator of Illinous" 27.62 % believe that "Europa is cherishing an illusion regarding Obama" 7.96 % think that "With Obama, a new era of trans-atlantical cooperation will begin" 32.95 % have the opinion that "Obama only uses Berlin as a stage for his election campaign" while merely 4.21 % think that "This has truely been a historical visit" So much to put this Obamania in Germany into perspective. It simply is a media hyperbole.

David on :

Most Americans share the European yearnings for better transatlantic relations. Every poll taken in the last 12 months shows that 3/4 of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track. There is a widespread feeling here that Bush botched foreign relations (and not just with Europe) just as he botched the economy. So, many Americans are pleased to see crowds of people in Europe cheering an American political figure and waving American flags (even if they don't support Obama). That is welcome change indeed. Polls out today show that Obama is getting a nice "Berlin Bounce" in the US: (Rasmussen) "Over half of Americans (55%) rate Barack Obama’s historic speech in Berlin yesterday good or excellent, and the Democratic presidential candidate is experiencing a modest bounce over John McCain nationally in the latest Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll....Even nearly a third of Republicans (32%) give the speech good or excellent marks," Gallup is showing similar movement.

Pat Patterson on :

So the Gallup Poll, taken before the speech, shows an improvement because of the speech? Now that is impressive! Why bother to hold an election and just schedule an apotheosis for Sen. Obama? He won't need a motorcade because he'll simply walk across the Potomac!

Pat Patterson on :

Since I noticed that David did not do any follow up to the claimed trend of approval of Sen. Obama's tour and speech a little more info is probably necessary. There was a nice little bounce on Sunday after the speech but in the three days since, the Gallup Poll released today, and which covered July 9th through the 31st, now shows that the race is dead even though it has been statistically tied since Tuesday. In other words a nine day Phileas Fogg scramble produced...nothing! Well, that's not completely true, Sen. Obama is actually worse off now than before.

John Veit on :

OBAMA RALLY ELECTION NIGHT NOTES NOVEMBER 17, 2008 Rockaway Beach, New York City A former exchange student in West Berliin reflects on the changes in American attitudes toward race. John Veit: Freelance Writer and Independent Film Maker Like President-elect Obama I am the son of a white mom and black dad. We were both adopted, raised in the seventies and eighties and our parents divorced. Our histories don't bear much in common beyond that but our reactions to a more racially polarized world are eerily similar. I was raised by white, divorced adoptive parents in the upper middle class suburbs of Boston, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. with my white brother. Growing up we moved a dozen or so times. My mostly white friends were usually marginalized by adoption, divorce, molestation, drugs or any combination thereof. Punkers, hippies, skateboarders and lacrosse players in the eighties and nineties didn't seem to care what color I was or who my parents were. I had few girlfriends back then as it seemed like black girls thought I was too white and few white girls were open-minded enough to date a black boy, let alone a proverbial "tragic mulatto." The fact that I was often bitter, drunk and stoned didn't help. My adoptive parents weathered ignorant remarks. My brother defended me from Beantown bigots. Wherever our family landed there was explaining to do and a general resignation that we would not fit in. Time and time again I was reassured from well-intentioned white people that, even though I was black, I wasn't "rude like most niggers." I preferred this sort of honesty to hairy eyeballs or condescending, liberal gobbledygook. In 1986 I was an high school exchange student in West Berlin. I was asked to sit in on an honors English class with a dozen or so students. The teacher, Frau Schulmann, did her graduate work at Columbia studying the black civil rights struggle in the early seventies. We read "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," "Manchild in the Promised Land," "Lady Sings the Blues" and other Black American classics all year long. I was grateful for the opportunity as such tomes were largely ignored by my school in Pennsylvania but felt awkward being put on display and mined for "authentic black American experiences." I had never thought of my experiences growing up as being anything but unique. My host grandfather from West Germany, a Third Reich soldier blinded by an American bomb, came by for Christmas. In order to explain my heritage and appearance my host father instructed him to grab hold of one of my grimy dreadlocks. He did so and found my hair "fascinating." We all shared a healthy laugh. I realized then that the confusion of racism might someday fade into history. There was a tiny Black Student Union at my upper-middle-class WASP high school. At college (I went to five) BSU's morphed into Minority Student Associations. Unable to speak Ebonics or leave my non-minority parts at the door, I never joined either. The fact that I had white parents and, even worse, a white girlfriend, didn't ingratiate me with either group. For the record, I do not use the term African-Americans as it is offensive to white Africans who emigrate to the United States. Unless white Americans are willing to be called Euro-Asian-Americans I will stick to black and white. I eventually grew bored with racial politics and switched majors from sociology to international studies. While writing about the World Bank I volunteered for environmental organizations, organized anarchist protests and helped Harlem students find grants for college. Unlike the president-elect I didn't have much taste for organizations and chose writing as a means to change what I didn't like. After writing about the environment and the world bank in college I landed a job at High Times magazine in 1992 covering the American war on drugs. As an ethnographer for the US Surgeon General's Office and the National Institute of Justice I worked to change how law enforcement treats drug offenders. Like the president-elect I had turned to W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright's Outsider, James Baldwin's Rufus, Malcolm X, marijuana and booze. While the President-elect eventually gave up his late-night lifestyle I am still what young Barack Obama called in "Dreams From My Father" a "pothead," perhaps headed to "the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man." Even though I like pot I am inspired by Malcom X's "repeated acts of self-creation," as Obama called them, and still skateboard, surf, play bass in a punk rock band, make bizarre independent movies, and take photos. It's a fun life and I still cling to the "hope" I'll sell a book, movie or song and my financial situation will "change" for the better. The 1995 OJ Simpson murder fiasco made walking around with a white woman a chore. Dozens of black Howard University students at a Parliament Funkadelic concert I was covering for High Times aped "OJ! OJ!" to my black dreadlocked friend and his white sweetheart as we crossed the campus a few days after the verdict. Back then it seemed people were more leery of what they couldn't explain. These days people seem less interested. My pretty white girlfriend volunteered for the Obama campaign in Harlem. I visited her there on election night. The place was abuzz with hundreds of hopeful multi-cultural volunteers. Everyone was sweet, welcoming and nervous. We settled in and watched MSNBC's drab coverage on a sheet hung across a wall. As the states rolled in for Senator Obama cheers turned to a dull, happy throb. At eleven o'clock nearly everyone erupted in raucous glee. The returns were in. The Republicans had been thoroughly trounced. Their era of hostility was, for now, over. Tears poured. People danced on Fredrick Douglas Boulevard. Delighted screams punctuated happy chants. Car horns blared as people screamed "Obama!" from apartment windows. It started to sink in why people were so happy. It wasn't just that a black guy was elected President of the United States, it was what he had promised to do. The Iraq war might end soon. Sustainable development may become a priority. Perhaps the Supreme Court won't be filled with right-wing reactionaries for the next four years. It seems abortion rights will not be threatened. Americans abroad will no longer be seen as global pariahs as people everywhere love Obama. He even promised to take a more compassionate approach to a criminal justice system that keeps more black American men in jail than in college. The rally in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Federal building on 125th St. and Malcolm X Boulevard was mobbed. People stood on trucks and street posts craning to see New York's first blind, black Governor on a twenty foot-high stage. Thousands more stared at a giant monitor tuned to CNN. We watched but could not hear Senator John McCain's concession speech. As Governor Sarah Palin rushed awkwardly off the stage to a hail of Harlem boos it started to sink in that a profound ideological shift was afoot. I started looking around at the sea of mostly black faces. They were exultant, screaming and chanting their candidate's name. They couldn't have cared less that a black guy and a white girl were out on a date. If President-elect Obama's parents hadn't ignored the racists of their day none of the revelers would be there in the first place.

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