Cultural imperialism

Barack Obama during his speech at the Victory Column in Berlin, July 24, 2008 (picture Matthias Winkelmann)

Funny how the people who object to American sports such as NBA or NFL games being held in Europe do not object when an instalment of the American presidential election campaign comes to town. Democrat candidate Barack Obama was greeted by an adoring crowd in the Tiergarten in central Berlin. But what kind of a president will he be?

Read his speech and it is not clear. Fine-sounding words, but do they really mean as much as those Berliners seem to hope?

Attention has been paid to statements such as “No nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone.” as though they were novel or revolutionary. Other than for the most neo- of the neo-cons, this is surely a statement of the obvious, particularly by an American politician in a foreign country. As to how nations should work together to defeat such challenges, Obama does not tell us, except “through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress”. The strong institutions might be interesting, but the rest is padding.

A lot of comparisons have been drawn between Barack Obama and John F Kennedy, not least implicitly by Obama himself seeking to deliver a speech in Berlin. But JFK became president at a time when the US was the undisputed leader of the free world and its allies desperately wanted it to succeed. The world is different now, and America’s place in the democratic world’s affections has to be earned and not assumed. That will mean policies and not just speeches, and policies may turn out to be rather harder.

After all, George W Bush did not strike out in a completely new direction as American president but actually continued many of the foreign policies of his predecessor Bill Clinton. The Clinton administration launched bombing raids on Iraq, fired cruise missiles at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and effected regime change in countries such as Haiti.

To change American policies to ones that appeal to the rest of the democratic world will mean more than simply undoing the mistakes of the Bush presidency but will require a more far-reaching reassessment of America’s role in the world. Obama has offered fine words of leadership, and his views on nuclear deterrence and climate change are surely welcome around the world, but there is more yet to come before we can be sure.

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