Last year our family spent most of the summer in Berlin, and we decided to return this year as well. Coincidentally, we arrived the day before Barack Obama was scheduled to speak, and were eager to be a part of this historic opportunity. We just returned and I have a few reflections.
To be fair, it was a bit odd: a presidential candidate seeking to speak in Berlin, before a column that had been relocated by Hitler, to a group of people who for the most part could not vote for him even if they wanted to. It was a presumptive end-run by the presumptive nominee to take on a speaking gig that was all but presidential. Realistically, his only standing here was as a private citizen, and even less coherently, as a Senator from Illinois.
Yet, Berlin and indeed Europe seemed eager for his message. And his message was strikingly simple: the nations of the world share a common destiny, and we need to start to act that way.
America needs to listen to its allies in Europe, and America needs to start acting in a spirit of cooperation with them. America needs to pay attention to what it’s doing to the environment, and start leading the push for sustainable energy rather than acting as the last defender of an unsustainable legacy of foreign oil. And the world should “look at Berlin” as an example of what happens when freedom is allowed to flourish in the context of responsibility to the world and the environment.
All in all, if you really take the substance of the speech item by item, there was nothing not to like. He was calling for a restoration of common sense and unity in our relationships with Europe and the world, and this is impossible to argue with. The only reason why anyone would argue with his message is for political or partisan reasons, and anyone has a right to do so.
However, this was a message that Europe and the world needed to hear. When America has walked around with swagger, spouting platitudes about spreading freedom, about curing our addiction to oil by drilling for more oil, and pretending to listen to allies and ultimately ignoring their input, we have eroded our credibility around the world, and ultimately made America its laughing stock.
Fortunately, America and the ideals it represents still have some value in the minds of free people; and free people, people of reason, are willing to give second chances to a country that was founded on laws and ideals.
Whether Barack Obama is capable of restoring the America we once knew — a “can do” America, an America of ideas, an America of laws, an America of cooperation, an America that doesn’t resort to torture and war crimes, no matter the perceived threat — is impossible to say right now. What we can say right now is that the world desperately wants that America back. For it’s that America that freed Europe (twice), wrote the Declaration of Independence, won the revolution, and welcomes immigrants. It’s that America that orchestrated the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan and founded modern Europe.
Today’s America — hobbled by its energy policy, fettered by Chinese imports, ignoring geopolitical facts in favor of political ideology, burdened by the housing crisis pyramid scheme — is not inspiring much of anyone. We’re succeeding in spite of all this. But one thing is telling: when you walk the streets of Berlin (or any European capital) the symbols of American culture are everywhere. New York Yankees, the Washington Nationals, University of Virginia, LA Dodgers, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, and countless other icons are represented repeatedly. New York in particular looms large in the mythology of the culture of the world. Why?
Because New York welcomes everyone. Because New York is the crazy-quilt of diversity that everyone believes America stands for and can be. If you see references to Berlin, Paris or Rome in other cities it is because of culture or history or art; all valid, but New York conveys a sense of freedom of the human spirit that is present nowhere else. And it’s that America, idealized by New York, that is our proudest and most resilient export. The world will never tire of it.
The Germans here were giddy for Obama, and acted as though he were already president. They just want to see America return to its former self and be an honest partner as we face a very challenging future together. Everyone wants that so badly. It’s a big burden to put on one man’s shoulders.
As the crowd of 200,000 dissipated after the fairly short speech (30 minutes or so), we attempted to return down the avenue between the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate, through the center of the Tiergarten park. Everyone was stuck. But, off to one side, the crowd started to pour forth through the fence, into the trees of the Tiergarten.
The fence was pushed open wider, and at first police resisted it. But, the fence opened again, and this time it was not repaired. We poured forth through this breach in the wall, and people took turns helping each other over the 3-foot jump they had to make to the path below. We escaped the mass of the Strasse des 17 Juni into the calm, quiet green of the Tiergarten.
It just goes to show you: in a fight between a bunch of Berliners and a wall, bet on the Berliners.