Hardly ever – probably never if one is to be accurate – has an American presidential candidate been treated with quite such enthusiasm in Europe as Barack Obama this week. A US president, yes. Both John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan came and wowed them in Berlin. But Barack Obama is different. He is new. He is untried. And he is – hard though it may be remember in the cascade of hope that has accompanied his visit – still just a nominee, not the elected chief.
The point is important. It is very easy amid all this enthusiasm to think that Mr Obama is here mainly to present himself to Europe. He isn't. He is here to prove to the voters back home that he has the capacity and the charm to act as a global statesman. From the moment that he appeared as the prospective Democrat candidate, the Republicans targeted his international inexperience as his chief vulnerability, the more apparent in comparison with the worldly wisdom of their candidate John McCain.
In that sense this has been a trip aimed at countering a negative in America rather than positing a positive in Europe. Every occasion in the week has been calculated to make a point to the US voter: the visit to Iraq to show that his commitment to withdrawal is acceptable to the Iraqis and possible to the troops; to Afghanistan to display his firmness in the "war on terror"; the prolonged stay in Israel to confirm his commitment to that country as America's special friend; the flying trip to Ramallah to display his belief in Middle East peace.
And so with Europe. Some may have felt disappointment at the generalised nature of his speech at the Victory Monument in Berlin. But the truth is that this has been a calibrated affair. Berlin was chosen for his only major speech in Europe not just because of its resonance with JFK but because, to the US public, good relations with Germany has more weight than friendliness with France, of whom they remain suspicious, or Britain, whom they take for granted. So too with Mr Obama's decision to seek a meeting in Britain first with Tony Blair last night and only this morning with Gordon Brown. Tony Blair remains hugely popular in America; Mr Brown, hampered by the need to show neutrality between Mr Obama and Mr McCain, much less so.
That is no cause for disappointment. If Europeans had looked to Mr Obama's visit to open up new possibilities on the policies that most concern this region – relations with Russia, energy security, EU expansion to the east, the future of Nato and the deployment of the American missile shield – then they were bound to be let down. There are no votes on the other side of the Atlantic in these questions. Europe's hope in Mr Obama is at bottom the hope that a fresh face and a more open mind will change the way Washington approaches the world after President Bush. The proof can come, as it did with JFK, only in the decisions a new president makes in response to events.
For the moment it is sufficient to say of America's bright young politician. He came. He saw. And he has largely conquered.Reuse content