4 June 2009

Obama: Echoes of Berlin in Cairo

Speaking in Berlin in 1963, President Kennedy showed how a few words in the local language is a sure fire way of winning approval (in the form of applause) from a foreign audience (clip 1 below). 

Today, speaking in Cairo, President Obama did the same with a few words in Arabic (clip 2 below), and also showed how a quotation from the local religious holy book can be just as effective (clip 3). 

And he came close to recycling a line from the speech he himself had made in Berlin last year (clips 4 & 5). 

Far from implying criticism of him for doing this, I find it very encouraging to hear him sounding as though he is serious about putting into practice an approach to foreign policy that he was only able to make promises about before he became president. 

But whether or not we should read anything significant into the replacement of  the word 'trust' with the word 'respect'  is a question on which I'd need an opinion from an expert on diplomatic semantics.


Charles Crawford said...


Not sure that as an ex-Ambassador I still qualify on that score, but I'll have a go.

Not really. In the context of the flow of the rhetoric of the President's good speech on this occasion, these sorts of words are largely there to create a 'wall of nice sounds' based around projecting Partnership and all the interlocking values of interest/trust/respect/cooperation which come with that.

What the President wanted his audience to 'hear' from his speech was something like: Nice man, smart, not anti-Muslim, reasonable, even some attempt at humility, new start, let's work things out together with a new honesty on both sides.

Mission largely accomplished, I'd say.

One odd note for me was: "I'm also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people, and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country...". Huh? Why only from US Muslims? What about other faiths and indeed atheists?

All of which leaves us still wondering what will happen if there is another 9/11 on US soil, or if Iran presses on towards acquiring a nuclear weapon and so on. Remember what happened in Mars Attacks to the US President after his legendary "Why can't we all just ... get along?" speech?

Also have a look at President Bush's 2002 speech on Israel Palestine: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/jun/25/israel.usa

A strong positive effort on style and substance, but definitely a firmer style in terms of what the USA wants and does not want? Obama opts for relentlessly emphasising the positive, which at this early stage of his Presidency makes sense in setting the tone - and also gives him room for manoeuvre ("I did my best") later if disaster strikes?

Finally, I am always surprised how uttering a strangled word or phrase in a local language seems to go down well in such speeches. To me it comes over as corny and forced if not even patronising. But people lap it up!


(Formerly HM Ambassador in Warsaw, Belgrade and Sarajevo)

Max Atkinson said...

Thanks, Charles - very interesting take on it that certainly convinces me - and proof that you do indeed still qualify as an expert on diplomatic semantics!