April 6, 2009

Running A Global Campaign

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During his campaign, President Obama took the unprecedented step of traveling to Europe and giving a speech to thousands in Berlin. Undoubtedly, the trip was motivated by domestic goals; Obama wanted to be portrayed as a leader that could restore greatness to the image of the United States abroad, a leader that we could be proud of. And in that sense, it was effective. Now as the President makes his second trip abroad (and first major one) he is bringing the stump speech from Prague to Ankara in an effort to win over foreign publics and governments.

In Strasbourg, Obama introduced several thousand French and German students to an election campaign-style town hall. Though The New York Times and other American news outlets obviously know the role of town halls in election campaigns, this fact seemed to be lost on some European outlets. The informality of American electioneering and Obama’s rhetorical power won the crowd over, and seems to have done the same for many in the European press and public in spite of protests. The New York Times had an interesting series of op-eds from writers in the UK, France, and Germany. It is striking to see how much Europeans, even more than Americans, are willing to put their trust in Obama. Now this isn’t to say that a little bit of charm and charisma will be the be-all and end all of policy conflicts, but it should go a long way towards nudging Europeans closer to the United States.

In Ankara, Obama had a much tougher sell. He was trying to sell the American brand in a region that trusts it the least and consistently suspects the worst of it: the Middle East. While he has emphasized the threat posed by al-Qaeda, he must reassure the Muslim world that the US is not threatening Islam itself. And today he did just that with a speech to the Turkish Parliament, praising Turkish democracy and promising that the US will never “be at war with Islam”. Turkey, governed by the moderate Islam-inspired Justice and Development Party, is a model of Islamic democracy in a region that is lacking in hope. Though deeply conflicted between secularists and traditionalists, the country remains the best dream for home-grown democracy in the region. Obviously such motions and speeches are not going to convince the committed anti-Americans, instead it is the uncommitted and moderates that Obama is targeting. And even there, with the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and American support for Israel, (not even going into Iraq or Afghanistan) he has his work cut out for him. But it’s a start.

One thing that I’ve notice from Obama domestically is that he is still campaigning. He is campaigning for policies now rather than votes. But his constant engagement with the mass media and the public is an attempt to bring public pressure to bear on Congress to act on his proposals. It seems that now we are seeing the same strategy at play overseas, with Obama reaching out to the world’s people and showing an often underexposed side of the United States – the human side.