A pragmatist without emotion instead of a savior spoke in Berlin. Barack Obama once wanted a “world without nuclear weapons.” But that was many years ago. Forgoing grand visions has in the meantime become symptomatic of the overall foreign policy of the president.
Barack Obama has become modest. It is just four years since he stood at the Hradčany Castle in Prague and announced an ambitious plan. He wanted, so he promised, to achieve a “world without nuclear weapons” — an idealistic, almost overbold goal that can only be set by a young president who has just entered office.
On Wednesday, Obama again stood in front of a historic backdrop in Europe, the Brandenburg Gate, and again he spoke about nuclear weapons and disarmament. Yet this time he passed on a big pitch. Provided that Russia would go along, America is prepared to lower the number of operational nuclear warheads from the present 1,500 to around 1,000, the president suggested — a simple deal. In Prague, Barack Obama the visionary spoke. In Berlin, Obama the arms control practitioner spoke.
There’s nothing wrong with the content of the new disarmament proposal. One thousand nuclear warheads are still enough to lay waste to the world. Presumably a few dozen atomic bombs would be enough to keep any enemy that could be deterred from attacking the U.S. The rest can safely go in the scrap metal pile. Obama is not jeopardizing America’s security, even if the nuclear weapons lobby in Congress will claim just that. Moscow has just as little reason to reject the offer.
Russia is suffering even more than the U.S. from the staggering sums that a nuclear arsenal costs. On the other hand, the way President Vladimir Putin is currently behaving, he will surely find a way to rain on the parade of his U.S. colleague.
Obama’s address will hardly go down as one of the great speeches in history. It was too flat for that. No savior was speaking but instead a politician who knows what he owes a Berlin audience. A little John F. Kennedy, a little Berlin airlift. But exactly this sober-mindedness, the forgoing of grand visions, is symptomatic of the overall foreign policy of the president.
Obama has been in office for four years now, and perhaps more than naiveté and nice rhetoric actually stood behind his former idealism. Today, little of this idealism is left in Obama’s speeches — and none at all in his practical politics. Whatever Obama was before, today he is surely the most unsentimental political realist to govern America in a long time.
One can formulate it more sharply: Obama’s foreign policy lacks any emotional dimension. The president is guided by pure pragmatism and interests; in any case, international law sets limits for him. That does not have to be wrong. The foreign policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush, was pure emotion, a mixture of a Napoleon complex and self-righteousness. After the terror of Sept. 11, 2001, thirst for revenge and a self-imposed moral mission of wanting to bring the world freedom were added. Bush was proud of making decisions by gut instinct. When it came to matters of war and peace, that went horribly awry.
Obama is wired differently, even if he speaks about freedom as much as Bush. Obama twists and turns and examines a foreign policy problem. When he has weighed all arguments, he decides. That leads to a very rational, sometimes hesitant — but not empathetic — foreign policy. And it can mislead one into writing off moral aspects as less important.
So Obama spoke in Berlin about peace and justice, for example, in the Arab world. His policy there, however, primarily pursues the interest of keeping the U.S. out of the chaos. That a free trade treaty will now serve as the new glue connecting America and Europe suits Obama well — as it does the just as sober Chancellor Angela Merkel: It is about genetically modified corn, industry standards and new jobs. Not about feeling.
Paradoxically, many Europeans, especially Germans, have their problems with both presidents. They despise Bush as the ostensibly dumb cowboy. But in the meantime, they are uneasy about Obama, the cool analyst who kills suspected terrorists with drones and has the Internet monitored.
Europeans long for America to respect them and take them seriously. But they become nervous when America sees its role as a world power not only in fighting climate change but also Islamists in Africa. Obama — the realist who knows that he is first and foremost responsible for the security of America — had a message for these critics in Berlin: The wall is gone, but the world is still dangerous.