Barack Obama’s speech in Berlin Thursday was not his finest performance. It had too much vague uplift and too few specifics. Some of its natural applause lines were picked up late and fitfully by an audience that desperately wanted to cheer. Its quite eloquent passage on the Berlin Airlift, though designed to illustrate and evoke German-American friendship, seemed to pass over the heads of a young German crowd more sensitive to Darfur than to memories of Communism. And like many an Obama speech, it developed a mood rather than a coherent argument.
That said, it was still a pretty good speech — a better speech than many conservatives, driven almost to distraction by the elusiveness of Obama’s political personality, will concede. And it was (or, rather, two thirds of it were) a fairly conservative and distinctly patriotic speech.
In the course of about 20 minutes the senator took the following positions:
‐ a strong condemnation of Communist tyranny and a celebration of America’s successful resistance to it during the Cold War;
‐ a passionate plea for the continuation of the Atlantic Alliance and its evolution in a global partnership as the only basis for international security and safe commerce;
‐ an endorsement of the war on terror that included President Bush’s trademark argument that we must “dry up the well of extremism that supports [terrorism]”;
‐ an unambiguous backing of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan and a clear demand that Europeans should send more troops there;
‐ a commitment to free trade, open borders, and globalization;
‐ support for the promotion of democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere that included an acceptance that the Iraq war had been won by the U.S., its Coalition allies, and the current Iraqi government;
‐ a straightforward statement that Iran “must” abandon its nuclear ambitions;
‐ and a patriotic evocation of America as the vehicle of the world’s hopes for freedom and justice.
These are in the main conservative positions. To be sure, they were sometimes hedged with weasel qualifications. Trade is to be “free and fair for all.” Or the U.S. is engaged in passing “responsibility to the Iraqi government and finally bring[ing] this war to a close.” Also, the commitments were sometimes calculatedly vague. Would a young and probably pacifist German crowd have cheered so lustily if Obama had said “Germans must fight the enemy in Afghanistan” rather than “the Afghan people need your troops . . . to help them rebuild their nation,” etc? But the direction of the speech, even with these qualifications, was rightward.
So what was wrong with it? Was it, perhaps, insincere? Conservatives are tempted daily to launch such a critique of almost anything Obama does. Maybe doing so will prove to be entirely justified if Obama wins office and reneges on his conservative commitments. But that requires Obama to win office. In the meantime, most voters don’t seem to buy this line of attack, and it risks making conservatives look bitter, marginalized, and defeated already.
A much surer critique, arising directly out of the speech itself, is to point out that it is much too utopian. It takes the conservative positions listed above, especially the more idealistic ones such as the promotion of democracy, and adds to them an entirely different list of wishful liberal positions: a world without nuclear weapons, a world without carbon emissions, a “new dawn” in the Middle East, a helping hand to the Bangladeshi child, the Chad refugee, the dissident in Burma, the voter in Zimbabwe, and so on.
Together these various aspirations add up to a hazy and unbounded utopianism illustrated by Obama’s riff about “walls.” Walls, it seems, are to come down everywhere under Obama’s soothing ministrations, thus removing pointless and wicked divisions between the rich and the poor, black and white, natives and immigrants, Christians and Muslims. Some walls undoubtedly create wicked divisions — the Berlin Wall separated Germans from Germans purely for the benefit of Communist rulers. But most Europeans and Americans accept that walls can also serve good purposes and that their removal would create rather than solve difficulties. The Israeli wall saves lives from terrorism, for instance, and walls between nation-states (a.k.a. borders) mark the division between citizen and foreigner that makes democracy possible.
Obama sought to elide this distinction by describing himself as both a “proud citizen” of the United States and a “fellow citizen” of the world. In his more utopian moments, Obama seems to hope that the entire world will somehow unite to take up his boundless, borderless commitments to suffering humanity at large. That is not what is going to happen. States with armies and aid agencies are needed for such tasks. The U.S. is commitment-averse because of Afghanistan and Iraq (and because of the complaints about these commitments from Obama, among others.) Hence Obama seeks — rightly, as it happens — to recruit the Europeans as full-fledged American partners in these international tasks.
Getting applause for these idealistic appeals from European crowds will be easier than getting money and troops from European states. The more boundless the commitments, the more reluctant those states will be to furnish hardware and risk lives. And the clearer that fact becomes, the more wary American voters will be of such commitments.
Obama may or may not be a left-wing radical. He is certainly a utopian radical. And if that makes him a better man, it also makes him a worse statesman.