The Blog

People of the World - Look at Berlin

Standing before the Brandenburg Gate this Wednesday, Obama will no doubt again make use of Kennedy's towering rhetoric. But this time the mood is different; the promise of 2008 itself already lost to history.

"Are we going to admit to the world that a Jew can be elected Mayor of Dublin, a Protestant can be chosen Foreign Minister of France, a Moslem can be elected to the Israeli parliament - but a Catholic cannot be President of the United States? Are we going to admit to the world - worse still, are we going to admit to ourselves - that one-third of the American people is forever barred from the White House?"

The year was 1960, and the young, wealthy, attractive, cosmopolitan, and Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy was fighting for the nomination of the Democratic Party and would emerge as the country's first non-Protestant President. Whilst monumental at the time, post-election the religious question quickly faded into the background of American presidential politics.

In 2004, a still relatively unknown, young, attractive, cosmopolitan and black politician from Illinois captivated the Democratic Party Convention. Whilst George W. Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, was busy looking for a wedge issue to divide the electorate and mobilise the Republican Party's conservative base, Barack Obama declared "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America--there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America--there's the United States of America." Four years later he too was elected President of the United States, instilling hope that America was finally overcoming its long legacy of slavery.

How did he do it? How did this modern day Kennedy become an inspiration to millions of Americans - indeed, millions of people around the world?

I think the answer can be seen - or better yet, heard - in his speeches. For here, in his rhetoric, we find the touchstone of Barack Obama's political philosophy. It is not so much an adherence to basic Liberal principles as it is a commitment to a particular style or approach to governing. I'd call it the politics of inclusion. The son of a white American mother and a black African father, Obama is uniquely suited to the approach. Given his multiracial background, he understands both the promise and arrogance of America better than most who came before him. But like his predecessors, indeed like most Americans, he believes in America's promise. To make good on that promise he knows that he needs to overcome polarisation at home and division abroad. To do so, he harnesses the power of rhetoric, his own, and that of iconic American speakers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy.

On 26 June, 1963 the Cold War was very much a fact of life for West Berlin. The city had been subject to 18 years of blockades and harassment from the Soviet Union and recently walled off from the surrounding East Germany. Morale was low and Kennedy's visit was intended to lift the spirits of both West Berliners and the Free World at large. "Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was 'civis Romanus sum.' Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is 'Ich bin ein Berliner!'... There are many people in the world who really don't understand, or say they don't, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin! There are some who say that Communism is the wave of the future. Let them come to Berlin. And there are some who say in Europe and elsewhere we can work with the Communists. Let them come to Berlin! And there are even a few who say that it is true that Communism is an evil system, but it permits us to make economic progress. Lass' sie nach Berlin kommen! Let them come to Berlin!"

In June 2008, almost 45 years to the day, candidate Barack Obama went to Berlin to harness the rhetoric of JFK: "Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen - a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world. ... This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom. And you know that the only reason we stand here tonight is because men and women from both of our nations came together to work, and struggle, and sacrifice for that better life. Ours is a partnership that truly began sixty years ago this summer, on the day when the first American plane touched down at Templehof.... People of the world - look at Berlin! Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle.... People of the world - look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.... Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity."

Five years later, and fifty years after JFK's speech, a re-elected President Obama will once again speak to the world from Berlin. Standing before the Brandenburg Gate this Wednesday, he will no doubt again make use of Kennedy's towering rhetoric. But this time the mood is different; the promise of 2008 itself already lost to history. In the intervening years, the inspiring poetry of Obama's rhetoric has been overtaken by the mundane prose of governing and a lacklustre record. At home he remains at war with a recalcitrant and increasingly reckless Republican Party. Abroad, the war in Iraq may have been ended and the commitment to Afghanistan reduced, but divisions in the Middle East are on the rise, and the President who from Cairo extended his hand to the Islamic world hasn't any idea of what to do to stop the march of radicals who would just as soon cut it off. In Europe, and especially in Germany, the disappointment over the failure to close Guantanamo, extra-judicial killings via unmanned aerial vehicles, and widespread monitoring of private internet communications is deep. Five years on, partnership and cooperation, whether at home or among nations, seem a long way off.

What will he say? People of the world - look at Berlin.

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