A Brazilian’s Take on Obama’s Oratory Power

Obama draws a 200,000-crowd in BerlinSometimes it is difficult to stand for the importance of words in politics. The risk is to be called naïve, idealist. However, when one thinks in a more deeply way about the act of putting politics into words, written or spoken, it is not difficult to perceive how important are the choices made.

Words, as constitutive elements of language, have fundamental relevance in the understanding of history. One can even think as how choosing words can contribute for the understanding of the being, as psychoanalysts do. We look for a clearer expression in words for a better understanding of facts.

When analyzing political expressions, it is not only possible to reach a better understanding of language, being used, but also of the political world this language constitutes, because, in fact, the world and the meaning, in essence, are the same thing.

And it is not only in theory that words gain relevance. Winston Churchill defended a country and an almost lost cause with his speeches, during the Second World War. Charles the Gaulle gave strength to the French resistance by radio. Martin Luther King Jr. changed American politics with his sermons. How can one calculate the political impact of Dr. King’s words?

“I can remember, I can remember when Negroes were just going around … scratching where they didn’t itch and laughing when they were not tickled. But that day is all over. We mean business now and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world. And that’s all this whole thing is about. We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. We are saying, we are saying that we are God’s children. And if we are God’s children, we don’t have to live like we are forced to live,” he said in his last speech “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” before he was shot in Memphis.

And there it was Mr. Barack Obama, at Berlin, in July 24th, 2008: “People of the world – look at Berlin! Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle. Look at Berlin, where the determination of a people met the generosity of the Marshall Plan and created a German miracle … Look at Berlin, where the bullet holes in the buildings and the somber stones and pillars near the Brandenburg Gate insist that we never forget our common humanity. People of the world – look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.”

Besides the highly symbolic character of the occasion, at this time already very well analyzed, remembering Kennedy, Reagan, Martin Luther King, walls etc. – and in a paper written for Foreign Affairs Obama also praised Roosevelt and Truman -, the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party spoke of “leadership” in a very different way from what has been usual by recent American presidents.

In relation to Europe, he said: .”.. America cannot turn inward. … Now is the time to build new bridges across the globe as strong as the one that bound us across the Atlantic. Now is the time to join together, through constant cooperation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice, and a global commitment to progress, to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

In his article for Foreign Affairs, “Renewing American Leadership,” Mr. Obama wrote: “Such leadership demands that we retrieve a fundamental insight of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy – one that is truer now than ever before: the security and well-being of each and every American depend on the security and well-being of those who live beyond our borders. The mission of the United States is to provide global leadership grounded in the understanding that the world shares a common security and a common humanity.”

“Partnership” is also a very strong word in his speech. In Berlin, he said: “Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity. That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another.”

The problem of the traditional analysis is that they despise the power of words by criticizing the speech as “ideas that one cannot put in practice.” A very well known political analyst here in Brazil called Mr. Obama “the one who sells illusions.”

By doing this, such kind of analysis tries to establish some form of connection between the ideas presented and a “material world,” when a true perception of the power of ideas does not make this type of distinction, but analyzes ideas as they are: ideas. After all, this “material world” is also nothing more than an abstraction.

The relevance of the Berlin Speech lies within the foreign policy options chosen and presented by the political platform led by Mr. Barack Obama. In a study of American Presidential foreign policy’s speeches from 1898 to 1917, from the War with Spain to the First World War, I could suggest that American foreign policy’s ideas come from a set of traditional values that are “invented” – in Eric Hobsbawm’s terms – within History.

These ideas – as “mission,” the missionary character of American foreign policy; “experience,” the traditional empiricist view that one can learn with time; “the unique experience,” the American strong confidence in its political system; “self-governance,” the specific idea that a people should be ruled by itself; and “the enemy issue,” the everlasting fight against the adversaries to the American political project (Indians, Europeans, Nazis, communists, terrorists) – which all together sometimes may transform the American foreign policy in an extension of the American Revolution, are chosen and given specific meanings and priority among different epochs by different people. In this context, it is important to see, you are what ideas you take!

It is amazing to see for example that “humanitarian intervention” is not an expression only typical of the 1990s. “Intervention upon humanitarian grounds has … not failed to receive my most anxious and earnest consideration,” said president William McKinley, in December, 1897, within the debates about an American action against Spain in Cuba.

About the necessity of building the Panama Canal, Ted Roosevelt put it as a mission of the United States to mankind. “The possession of a territory fraught with such a peculiar capacities as the isthmus in question carries with it obligations to mankind. The course of events has shown that the canal cannot be built by private enterprise, or by any other nation that our own; therefore it must be built by the United States,” said the American president in December, 1903.

Some skeptics can say that Ted Roosevelt was just trying to buy American support for his project. But this is to give too weaker role for ideas or not to believe that the way he presented his project is in fact an example of what constitutes the American political culture. What Ted Roosevelt has said or Woodrow Wilson in his declaration of war – “We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts, for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments … To such a task we can dedicate our lives and our fortunes, everything that we are and everything that we have, with the pride of those who know that the day has come when America is privileged to spend her blood and her might for the principles that gave her birth and happiness and the peace which she has treasured” – is not very far from the ideas expressed by Thomas Paine – “Providence has showered on this favored blessings without number, and has chosen you as the guardians of freedom, to preserve it for the benefit of the Human race”; or “The cause of America is the a great measure the cause of all mankind” – or Reagan in July 17, 1980, in his acceptance of the party nomination: “Can we doubt that only a Divine Providence placed this land, this island of freedom, here as a refuge for all those people in the world who yearn to breathe freely: Jews and Christians enduring persecution behind the Iron Curtain, the boat people of Southeast Asia, of Cuba and Haiti, the victims of drought and famine in Africa, the freedom fighters of Afghanistan and our own countrymen held in savage captivity.” Yes, Afghanis mujahedins were once “freedom fighters.”

American political culture is a complex pot. Depending on the moment one analyzes, some ideas are strong, others are weak, presenting themselves in the various representations produced by American society, including politics, and political speeches. Obama’s speech in Berlin is clearly a choice and a Barack Obama’s victory in this sense could represent a significant turning point in the American political history, overcoming the long conservative moment initiated with Richard Nixon (and Henry Kissinger) reaching the White House in January, 1969.

It is good to remember, as John Lukacs did in his New Republic book: in 1955, few Americans would accept the designation “conservative,” but 23 years later all polls showed more than half of the Americans choosing the term to designate itself. Against the big government of Roosevelt and Johnson and among the context of the Cold War, a conservative movement spread itself throughout the country electing Nixon, the conservative democrat Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W.H. Bush and, after Clinton, George W. Bush. Clinton, in this list, can be seen as an exception due to his great charisma or a seed for a change that is about to come.

In this sense, Obama’s Berlin Speech is more important for what it represents than for what he, if elected, will actually do. In this field, where what is being analyzed is what words represent and not how words will be put in action, there is no place for Henry Kissinger’s advice, no matter how truly it is: “The pledges of each new administration are leaves on a turbulent sea. No President-elect or his advisers can possibly know upon what shores they may finally be washed by that storm of deadlines, ambiguous information, complex choices, and manifold pressures which descends upon all leaders of a great nation.”

In November, 1999, the governor of Texas George W. Bush spoke about the United States’ foreign relations at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, in Simi Valley, California. At the occasion, he said: .”..American defense. This must be the first focus of a president, because it is his first duty to the Constitution. Even in this time of pride and promise, America has determined enemies, who hate our values and resent our success – terrorists and crime syndicates and drug cartels and unbalanced dictators. The Empire has passed, but evil remains.” To see how different it is, just look at the words.

Once I have written: “Speeches are more than songs from the past. They are notes that constitute the music of time.” Doing speeches now with McCain and Obama are all Americans.

Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. You can read more from him at his website: www.ituassu.com.br.


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