Even now, gazing back through the jaundiced lens of subsequent experience, Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign speech in Berlin still seems an extraordinary occasion. Tens of thousands of mostly young Germans gathered in the center of the city to listen to the American presidential candidate, in an atmosphere The Guardian described as “a pop festival, a summer gathering of peace, love—and loathing of George Bush.” Streets were closed for the occasion. Bands played to warm up the crowd.
When he spoke, Obama said just what the Germans, and so many other Europeans, wanted to hear. He reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Europe, evoking the Berlin airlift and the fall of the Berlin Wall. He praised the virtues of “allies who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.” He listed a series of global problems and declared that “no one nation, no matter how large or how powerful, can defeat such challenges alone.” That one phrase—again, according to The Guardian’s gushing account—prompted long and hearty cheers.
Germany was not alone in its rapture. Soon after he was elected president, Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—simply, it seems, for the fact that he was not George W. Bush. With those kinds of absurd expectations surrounding his presidency, it was clearly impossible for Obama to avoid disappointing the Europeans. What is only surprising, in retrospect, is the speed with which he did so—and with which the Europeans disappointed him.
A TELLING 2009
Three early incidents illustrate the nature of the problem. The first was the so-called reset with Russia. In March 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and presented him with a gift: a giant red “reset button,” made especially for the occasion. Despite an unfortunate mistranslation (the Russian word printed on the gift actually meant “overcharge,” not “reset”), they smiled and pressed the button together for the cameras. The implication
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