POLITICS JULY 24, 2008
This author, a so-called expert on Europe and trans-Atlantic relations, has had more hits from big-time U.S. media in the last five days than in the last five years: Newsweek, CNN, NPR, Lehrer, Reuters, even Al-Jazeera English. They all wanted me to explain Germany's Obama fervor, of course, particularly as it related to his speech in the heart of Berlin, at the “Victory Column” that celebrates the military triumphs that launched Bismarck’s Prussia-Germany on the road to Continental primacy.The site selection is a nice touch for a man who is regarded throughout Germany as the Prince of Peace, as the polar opposite of the one-man axis of evil that George W. Bush is said to be. But what Barack Obama really is or isn’t does not matter. Obamania is not about politics, but about desire, dreams, and projections. Obama is not so much a candidate as a canvas, a vast surface onto which Europeans (and half of the U.S. electorate) can paint their fondest fantasies. There hasn’t been anything like it in Western politics since … since … Jack (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) Kennedy, the president Barack Obama so self-consciously mimics, down to the tilt of his head and the inflection of his voice. If he ran in Germany, Obama would carry the country by a landslide, with 67 percent of the vote. But there is no gold in them thar numbers, only disappointment. By vast margins, Germans and Europeans believe in Obama as the Savior & Redeemer who will deliver them from the last eight years of George W. It’s like an exorcist fantasy: Once we can send Bush off into the desert, like the scapegoat of the Israelites, we will be able to love America again.There are two problems buried in this fantasy. One, Barack Obama is possessed of a pliable identity that oscillates between Barry and Barack, between White and Black, between the Harvard Law Review and the Chicago slums, between a leftish voting record in the Senate and a right-of-center message on the stump. He is neither saint nor softie, but the most consummate power politician to come out of Chicago since Richard Daley the Elder. Following classical electoral ritual in the U.S., Obama has been moving steadily to the right, be it on the death penalty, gun control, or Iraq. Europeans haven’t quite processed his pilgrimage to the center, and if they have, they seem not to care.“He is a universal icon,” gushes Ijoma Mangold, a commentator for Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, the country’s largest quality daily. Obama’s “greatest talent,” he says, “is to have turned his person into a grand narrative many would like to make their own.”The Washington correspondent of another major left-of-center publication puts it in more practical terms: “Obama recognizes the limits of American power and influence. … The weight of the White House (in world affairs) is waning. … In this multipolar world not all the roads will lead through Washington.” For the new president (and there is no doubt in Europe that it will be Obama), this means “more cooperation, more UN, NATO, and EU.”This, of course, is Europe’s favorite dream: a post-Bush America cut down to size and chastened, a meeker and more modest America, a more “European” (that is, a more social-democratic) America, which at last casts off some of its nastier capitalist habits. An America that is a lot more like us Europeans who have forgone power politics and sovereignty in favor of communitarian politics and integration.This is the canvas Europeans have been painting with wildly enthusiastic brush strokes. If Obama wins, the reality will be different. Sure, President Obama would speak more softly than did Mr. Bush in his first term, but he would still be carrying the biggest stick on earth. He will preside over an America that is still No. 1 and not part of a multipolar chorus populated by Russia, China, India, and the E.U.Germans should have read the foreign-policy chapter in Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. There are passages in there which read like pure Bush--on unilateralist action, on the right of pre-emption, on playing the world’s “sheriff.” Obama’s upshot: “This will not change--nor should it.” This doesn’t mean more Bushism if Obama is elected. But it is a useful reminder that the U.S. plays in a league of its own--with global interest, with global military means, and with the willingness to use them.In Berlin, hundreds of thousands will cheer a projection rather than a flesh-and-blood Obama on Thursday. After Inauguration Day, alas, Europe and the world will not face a Dreamworks president, but the leader of a superpower. Whether McCain or Obama, the 44th president will speak more nicely than did W. in his first term. He will also pay more attention to the “decent opinions of mankind.” But he will still preside over the world’s largest military, economic, and cultural power.This vast power differential is what Germans and Europeans don’t quite fathom in their infatuation with Obama. Their problem was not Mr. Bush, but Mr. Big--America as Behemoth Among the Nations, unwilling to succumb to the dictates of goodness that animate post-heroic, post-imperial, and post-sovereign Europe.Josef Joffe is publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit, as well as a fellow of the Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford.
By Josef Joffe