“Motherhood and apple pie” was my reaction to Obama’s fine Berlin speech. He said the right things, in the right way, wowed the young Berliners, and gave Americans like Quincy here back some of their self-esteem. That will do fine for now.
Like most people in the world, Europeans will be hugely relieved when Obama takes office. An actual intelligent adult in the White House! And half-African as well! But there really wasn’t much beef. There didn’t have to be. Obama is under no pressure at all from the fumbling and ignorant McCain to articulate his broad foreign policy vision, and every reason not to give hostages to fortune. So no five-point plans on climate change, Islamic fundamentalism, nuclear proliferation, trade, Africa, or any other issue he mentioned. I’m sure Obama’s policy staff is beavering away on these (I trust they’ve not lost Samantha Powers’ e-mail address), but we are unlikely to learn more before the election.
Does the world actually need five-point plans from Obama?
I’m not convinced. There is now a large set of international institutions and frameworks, churning out well-thought-out policy agendas: a global wonk community. Over the last eight years, there has been a huge America problem in these bodies: not only the absence of leadership, but active sabotage by the likes of John Bolton. The rebuke of the representative of Papua New Guinea at the 2007 Bali climate change conference must represent a more general feeling:
If for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us. Please get out of the way.
The United States won’t be able to go back to the table as if Bush never happened. Just as Acheson and Marshall delayed the relative decline of the US after 1945 by locking American interests into cooperative global and Atlantic institutions, so Bush’s contempt for the same institutions and his imperial follies have accelerated the relative decline since the second peak in 1989. The USA doesn’t drive the Doha round, it’s in the dock; and its views on Turkey’s membership of the EU do not matter. I suspect that what most of us non-Americans are looking for is less leadership than the simple willingness to cooperate.
Obama missed one trick in Berlin. His history on 1948 was fine, down to not stressing the Americanness of the pilots – in fact slightly more British aircrew died during the airlift. But on 1945 he was shaky. Trivially, he placed the encounter between Soviet and American troops in Berlin rather than on the Elbe, 200 km to the southwest. Eisenhower ordered his troops to stop there, complying with previously agreed spheres of control. The Berliners would have been grateful if he hadn’t, and had to endure a frightful siege by the Red Army. I’ll bet there are cynical Torgau jokes already going the rounds in Berlin cabarets.
More important, the allied armies fought as the “United Nations”, and created the global institution that has inherited the name in the heat of their struggle. When Germans say “never again”, they don’t refer only to the Holocaust but to the whole of the Third Reich’s infamy and destructiveness; and that’s why they place great hopes in both the EU and the United Nations to preserve the peace. Obama mentioned the EU, which he can barely influence now, but not the UN, where American involvement is critical. Bolton’s scorched-earth tactics are not the only reason for the UN’s ineffectiveness: Russian and Chinese cynicism, third-world grandstanding, diplomatic lethargy and bureaucratic make-work have all played a part. UN reform would be a good place to start for a substantive American play for new global leadership.
Mr Obama, can we please have one five-point plan?