Thursday, 10 July 2008
Merkel: Not so fast, Obama
Obama is expected to draw huge crowds in speeches in the three main European capitals, an unprecedented phenomenon for someone who is only a candidate. But then again, this is no usual election. However it would be incorrect, as some US media outlets have put it, to say that Obama enjoys huge “popularity” in Europe. I think a more accurate description would be “curiosity.” It’s safe to say that Europe isn’t enthused about a John McCain presidency (in the UK Obama is preferred over McCain five to one), but they do know what they would be getting with one. In many ways it would be a continuation of the Bush administration foreign policies, and that doesn’t get anyone here very excited. McCain would likely continue to push NATO’s missile defence plans and adopt a hard line on Iran. But at the same time he would likely be a more willing partner than his predecessor on the environment, and may be more prepared for trade concessions with Europe than Bush as well.
I think it’s safe to say that the vast majority of Western Europeans would probably by default support whoever the Democratic nominee was right now. But as for Obama’s foreign policy, there isn’t much know about it here. Europeans are intrigued by the grass-roots support and enthusiasm that Obama has been able to fire up in the US, a quite uncommon trait among the politicians of Europe. But from personal observation and conversations, I would say that Hillary Clinton was the favourite here in the Democratic nomination battle by far, as I’ve written about before. There have also been some unflattering press reports here about Obama’s attention to Europe while a senator. Articles have pointed out that although Obama has been chairman of the Senate European Subcommittee since he became a senator in 2004, he has failed to convene a single policy meeting of the group. He's also only made only one brief official visit to London, and none to the rest of Western Europe.
So the stakes for this Europe visit are high, at least for Obama’s popularity with Europeans. Although this doesn’t matter much in terms of the outcome US election, part of his appeal is that he would restore America’s image in the world. The visuals of Obama greeting cheering crowds of thousands in Europe will certainly endear him to those Americans who are concerned about the US’s deteriorating reputation.
But exactly where those grand speeches are going to be held has now become a heated political issue in Germany. Obama will be making stops in the capitals of the big three: Berlin, Paris and London. The Obama campaign would reportedly like the centrepiece of the trip to be a huge speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. But when German Chancellor Angela Merkel got wind of this, she shot the idea down, saying it would be inappropriate for a US presidential candidate to use one of the most important symbols in Germany as a photo-op. The gate, which was once inaccessible in a no-mans land within the Berlin Wall for many decades, has become the ultimate symbol of Germany’s reunification. It wouldn’t be unprecedented for a US president to make a speech there. Ronald Reagan used the gate as a backdrop for his famous 1987 speech telling Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech in the 60’s wasn’t there, but it was about the gate and the wall. The difference, of course, is that Obama is a presidential candidate. He’s not president yet, and to place himself in front of the gate might seem presumptuous.
It’s also unclear what message he’d be trying to send by being in front of the wall. It isn’t just any landmark backdrop, it is a potent, powerful symbol and delivering a speech in front of it would be sending a strong message. By what’s the message? Is it that he wants to unite the US like Germany united 18 years ago? Seems like an extreme comparison. Is it that the cold war is now over and we must deal with the new challenges of the 21st century? If we need to move past the cold war, why is he standing at the Brandenburg Gate? Or is it that he is recognizing that a united Germany has become the dominant power in Europe? That’s not likely to make the Brits very happy! And some British papers are already steamed that the UK will be the last of the big three to be visited by the candidate, since they view Britain as the US’s main partner in Europe.
The request, which hasn’t been confirmed by the Obama campaign, is threatening to overshadow the entire visit. At this point it’s hard to imagine that he would still do it there, after the leader of Germany publicly said it would be inappropriate. But should they have even asked? The fact that the campaign may have not realized the significance of what they were asking would only add fuel to the fire for the argument that Obama is naïve on foreign policy issues.
It will be interesting to see how Merkel, Sarkozy and Brown interact with Obama, as they will be walking a fine line. They want to encourage good relations with the man who may be the next US president, but they don’t want to get so close as to upset his rival, in case McCain is the next president. Conservative prime minister John Major famously ruined his relationship with Bill Clinton even before Clinton was elected by getting too cozy with George Bush Sr. in the 1992 campaign. Though it’s quite possible all three leaders would prefer to see an Obama presidency, they will be careful not to do anything that might show any preference for one candidate over another.