Thursday, July 24, 2008

Repairing The American Brand Abroad

While the right-of-center chattering class, with a leg up from the struggling McCain campaign, has been in high dudgeon for days over Barack Obama's not-a-campaign speech campaign speech today in Berlin, my memory is a little longer and my perspective a whole lot less narrow.

As a world traveler, it has always mattered to me how America is perceived abroad, and not just because I have had to pretend to be a Canadian or Irishman to get out of bar fights.

Mind you, my government should not make policy based on whether, say, the French or Japanese approve, but it is terribly sad that the American brand has taken such a beating in the Age of Bush.

Many Europeans who supported the 1991 Gulf War were savvy enough to swear off the Bush Kool Aid in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war and let their unhappiness show in contrast to the love feast today in the Tiergarten, the Berlin equivalent of New York's Central Park.

Long story short, Obama understands the wisdom of multilateral policy making and McCain does not.

This begins to explain why the presumptive Democratic nominee is extraordinarily popular in Europe and could draw a couple hundred thousand people to the Victory Column -- some of them waving American flags who weren't told they had to do so or else -- and millions more through a live broadcast in EU countries, the U.S. and elsewhere.

Discussions like these can slide pretty quickly into a Michael Jackson "We Are the World" mawkishness, but being widely reviled for our government (and certainly not for our culture) pretty much everywhere, not the least of which is on the so-called Arab Street, is not a good thing.

While Obama's speech had campaign-esque undertones and there were shouts of "Yes, We Can!" from the crowd, he avoided any overt references to the failures of the Bush administration while enunciating what he would do on the world stage as an internationalist president. And those of us waiting to see what German catchphrase he would use waited in vain, but then how do you top President Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" proclamation of 1963?

Comparisons between Obama's speech to JFK's are apt only to a point because the world order has changed so extraordinarily over the last 45 years.

This is that point:

JFK sought to assure nervous Berliners of America's unflinching support after Communist East Germany erected the Berlin Wall. Obama sought to assure nervous Europeans that he will help repair an historic friendship while at the same time telling them they are expected to do their part, too.

Top photo by Jae C. Hong/The Associated Press

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