A Letter from the Provinces: On Barack Obama’s Speech at the Victory Column

by Patrick Baker                                                                 July 27, 2008

The plain fact of the matter is that Europe has floated in the American sphere of influence since the end of World War II, and Germany especially so. There was long a feeling of partnership – well, junior partnership – in promoting the democratic way of life and assuring American interests around the world. Except for the Vietnam War, American interests seemed to be German interests.

    All this changed in the wake of 9/11. On 9/12, American interests were German interests. Germans stood ready to do anything their senior partner asked of them. And they did it. But the commands and the way they were given were both so odious that the trust and the will to obey were broken. Germans no longer look to America as their big brother, their uncle, or their great white father, but they must heed the father all the same.

    For this reason, an event as frivolous as the primary elections received more coverage here than they did in the America of my youth. Germans want to know who the next emperor will be, a desire made all the keener by the simple horror they feel for the current one. And for this reason, over 200,000 Germans went to hear a campaign speech by Barack Obama. Ask yourself when the last time was that any American politician holding any office enjoyed a crowd that big. Has it ever happened? This is important.

    Please do not be fooled into thinking that the crowd was made up of disgruntled American expats, or that most people showed up expecting a concert or some imaginary free lunch (it was after dinner in Germany anyway). And do not think that the speech bombed because most people did not seem to clap at the right time. No, the audience was overwhelmingly German, and it did not clap on time because it is unfamiliar with the obsequious rhythms of mandatory jubilation that attend American political rhetoric. English is also its second language.

    Germans flocked to hear Obama because they are dying for change in imperial policy, and he promises that change. This is the import of his speech.

    And more for us than for them. For even if not elected, he has done America the favor of showing the world that there is hope of escape. Escape from a boot-in-the-face foreign policy that politely goes under the name of “unilateralism.” Escape from a phony war. Escape from helplessness and oblivion, which are the two feelings that dominate the psychology of America’s “allies.” They now have reason to hope that in the future they will not stand helpless as an American president walks all over them. They have reason to hope their own interests will not shrivel up in oblivion.

    There is, of course, no hope of escape from the empire as such. There is only hope for a better existence within it. Will we give it to them?

    Empires come and empires go. The world will likely never know an age without one, and whether this is for good or for ill can probably not be said. What can be said is that some empires are better or worse for others, and that some are better or worse for themselves. This last is worth thinking about, as it rarely gets much attention. Let’s forget about the losers for a minute and concentrate on the winners. Empire was, for example, bad for ancient Athens but good for Rome; good for early-modern Spain but not so hot for France; the best thing that ever happened to England but a total disaster for Italy.

    It is perhaps not a surprising fault that we do not often consider whether our empire is good for our subjects, but it is as shocking as it is unconscionable for us not to ponder whether it is good for us. What Obama’s speech showed is that it could be, or at least that it could be better – for both sides. We hope for the best, especially in the provinces.

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