“After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.”
– President Barack Obama during his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Germany
Recently as we have noted earlier, a number of conservative writers have been putting down Obama’s speech before the Berlin Brandenburg Gate. Some criticized it for its heightened or idealistic rhetoric, and others for not being more specific or strong on the climate, etc. Others tried to compare (unfairly) its 4,000 invited attendees to the hundreds of thousands that showed up in 2008. Not remarking that, for security reasons and the requirements of the host country, the format was necessary – and millions of Germans watched on their TVs. Most of these pundits’ efforts were often the usual cheap shots at the President, a platform for those who are more interested in the partisan effort to bring our first Black, liberal President down. Few really examined the substance of what he had to say.
The fact of the matter is that in often elegant and well chosen words, Obama outlined the basic elements of a more enlightened, ambitious, and yet pragmatic framework of American engagement in the world and a template for advanced industrialized and democratic countries to meet their responsibilities in what still is a difficult global environment. That is, perhaps, the most important “macro” concept that Obama made in this substance and idea-filled speech. The most important element, overlooked by many, is that Obama established a framework for his second term foreign policy. Both the goals and the means were at the same time idealistic and realistic. In briefings, White House staff pointed out the key elements and noted actions would follow.
Today, President Obama will set forth some of the specifics regarding U.S. climate change polices, which he cited as a key problem in his Berlin speech and in his earlier State of the Union. Unfortunately, due to the Republican obstructionist stance, these will have to be done by executive action. This is a shame, but it is better than inertia on this critical issue. One approach is to try also for global “compacts” or agreements that do not require a treaty by which groups of nations bind themselves to limit green house gasses and support programs that will mitigate global warming. Yet the House Republicans have targeted the EPA (and USAID) for severe cuts in its budget and placing limitations on its pollution-preventing activities. Luckily, there are things the President and EPA can do under existing legislation that will help both the American and the global environment. Now is the time to do so!
The other key element that I have cited earlier, is the emphasis on common problem solving, joint and cooperative efforts, rather than saying “go it alone” whenever possible. This is a major separation from the often anti-international institutions position that the Bush II administration took on almost every issue. They took delight in bashing the United Nations, nuclear arms control treaties like the CTBT, and the International Criminal Court. Part of this is a clear preference by Obama to put emphasis on diplomacy, rather than crude and unilateral military force whenever this is a realistic option. Here, Syria comes to mind, but also global health threats, multinational trade agreements, security cooperation via NATO and peacekeeping/peacebuilding efforts with the U.N., and other regional organizations or groups when possible.
The trip also made it clear that Europe will not and has not been neglected, as some have criticized. What is true is that Europe, based on my recent visit to the UK, has in many areas withdrawn from its legitimate major role in helping to “manage” regional and global crises. Obama has been renewing our transatlantic ties and has urged a more active and critical role for a grouping that has a population and economy larger than the U.S. It is not sadly pulling now its full weight. Obama’s trip to Northern Ireland for the G-8 and Berlin advanced a historic initiative and started the negotiations of a free-trade pact with the EU. Obama stressed the importance of cooperation among the Atlantic democracies. But his key message was for Europe to take a global perspective. And that the Atlantic community must now look well beyond its own borders. “Our work is not yet done,” Obama said. “For we are not only citizens of America or Germany–we are also citizens of the world.” Taking up his idealistic side he added: “Our values call upon us to care about the lives of people we will never meet.” That was a prophetic American voice at a critical moment when it seems both strife and indifference to human suffering seems to be in the ascendancy.
Finally, one must acknowledge the limitation of pure executive actions. Our constitution gives broad powers to the president on diplomacy and national security issues – and now is the time they need desperately to be used powerfully, as this is a time of major critical challenges to America and the world. Others have said that we remain the responsible and essential nation to help lead global solutions and help solve important security dangers – but others must have their share of leadership. Obama showed an America is not in “decline’ but rather still is a critical part of global solutions.
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