Belinda Cooper: Obama in Berlin

Belinda CooperBERLIN, GERMANY—Barack Obama has come and gone, but excitement remains, along with sober analysis. Obama was again on the front of every newspaper the day after his appearance, and most of the coverage and photos were flattering. (In a recent New York Times op-ed, Susan Neiman refers to Spiegel Magazine’s sardonic cover, but Spiegel is always sardonic and condescending, about everyone; it’s hardly representative.)German newspapers in Berlin.

The day of the speech, people were already making their way to the Siegessäule hours before Obama was scheduled to take the stage. The crowd was international and ethnically mixed, and largely young. The mood was not so much passionate as curious. One longtime American resident of Berlin called it an anti-Bush demonstration of a sort (though with many people waving American flags)

I asked an Eritrean friend I met on the way, who’s lived in Berlin for years and is now a German citizen, what people were saying about Obama. He told me everyone likes him, but they don’t believe Americans will actually elect him. That is, indeed, a concern; many people have asked me whether I really think he has a chance.

Obama’s speech touched on many of the points Germans, especially younger people, are most interested in, but he also alluded to some issues they are not excited about. Back where I was standing, there was little applause for his call for more German troops in Afghanistan or his praise for NATO. To me, his rhetoric about the Cold War and the airlift came across as clichéd and somewhat condescending, but not everyone saw it that way; the airlift still means something to Berliners, particularly older ones. He received a great deal of applause when he spoke of Darfur, several times, and Zimbabwe; of ending the Iraq war and eliminating nuclear weapons; of climate and the environment; and of breaking down barriers between races and religions.

Still, Obama’s rhetoric is American, for example in its tendency towards what one commentator called “light and darkness metaphors,” and sounds strange to German ears. One young woman I spoke to afterwards found the speech superficial (“bullshit” was one of her adjectives). And others have made the same arguments as Roger Cohen in the New York Times—that it was abstract and feel-good.

The staging of an American campaign is equally alien. In a poll by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the day of his appearance, a majority of respondents nationally felt either that too much fuss was being made, that Obama was using Berlin for his campaign, or that European expectations of him were too high. Most people seemed quite aware that the speech was, in fact, aimed more at the U.S. then at Germany. But many commentators, as well as listeners, found substance in the speech nevertheless. Obama’s admission that the U.S. has made mistakes, for example, and his acknowledgment that many Europeans see the U.S. as a cause of the world’s problems, meant a great deal.

A journalist friend I spoke to pointed out that personalizing the concept of immigration, as Obama did, also makes an impression in Germany, where it’s currently unimaginable that an immigrant, or child of one, might be a leader. Some pointed out how different Obama is from German politicians in his openness and accessibility. A political consultant interviewed by the daily Berliner Zeitung maintained that no German politician could create such excitement. German candidates never have to compete for votes, he explained—they’re chosen by their parties—so there’s no place for a young upstart. My friend Sieglinde, a former East German who has often been skeptical of the United States, echoed this view: she told me right after the speech that Obama seemed so human in comparison to German politicians.

Obama’s call for cooperation rather than confrontation also, of course, went over extremely well here, though more sober commentators pointed out that this hardly means the U.S. is giving up its claims to leadership. Still, by emphasizing cooperation, Obama placed responsibility on Europeans to offer ideas and alternatives, as well as to take concrete responsibility in places such as Afghanistan. Even though Chancellor Angela Merkel immediately denied any German intent to become more involved in Afghanistan, members of Merkel’s party, the CDU, are believed to favor an Obama presidency.

The speed with which the anti-Americanism of the last few years has turned around for Obama, at least on the surface, is startling. Attitudes towards the U.S. have always been ambivalent here, as in so much of the world. But Germany’s love-hate relationship with us is more intense because of the occupation period and American influence.

There’s clearly a yearning for positive American leadership, after years of Bush. Germans want an American president they can respect. This has, of course, led to exaggerated expectations. But after Obama’s appearance, and the realization that he is, in fact, very American, Germans still seem quite hopeful that he’ll be our next president.

Belinda Cooper, who lived in Berlin from 1987-1994, is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and co-founder of its Citizenship and Security Program. An adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs, Cooper is the editor of War Crimes: The Legacy of Nuremberg. She teaches and lectures on human rights, international law, and the “war on terror.”

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