It was a very, very good speech that hit almost all the right notes. The right amount of flattery for Russia as a “great power” and for its cultural and scientific achievements (and I’m glad that, in mentioning the great 19th Century Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, Obama resisted the temptation to claim kinship with Pushkin due to the latter’s African ancestry, as a few Russian commentators semi-facetiously predicted he might). Recognition of Russia’s enormous sacrifice in World War II, a very big topic in Russia these days (though with a major missed opportunity to remind the audience that Russians repelled a foreign tyrant and butcher only to be re-victimized by a domestic one).
Also on the plus side: there were no apologies, no genuflection toward the official Russian point of view on NATO expansion or the missile shield. On the contrary, Obama once against emphasized that neither is a threat to Russia.
Obama strongly reiterated America’s commitment to democracy and freedom as universal, not just American values, devoting a prominent portion of his speech to “America’s interest in democratic governments that protect the rights of their people.”
By no means is America perfect. But it is our commitment to certain universal values which allows us to correct our imperfections, to improve constantly, and to grow stronger over time. Freedom of speech and assembly has allowed women, and minorities, and workers to protest for full and equal rights at a time when they were denied. The rule of law and equal administration of justice has busted monopolies, shut down political machines that were corrupt, ended abuses of power. Independent media have exposed corruption at all levels of business and government. Competitive elections allow us to change course and hold our leaders accountable. If our democracy did not advance those rights, then I, as a person of African ancestry, wouldn’t be able to address you as an American citizen, much less a President. …
So around the world, America supports these values because they are moral, but also because they work. The arc of history shows that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not. Governments that represent the will of their people are far less likely to descend into failed states, to terrorize their citizens, or to wage war on others. Governments that promote the rule of law, subject their actions to oversight, and allow for independent institutions are more dependable trading partners. And in our own history, democracies have been America’s most enduring allies, including those we once waged war with in Europe and Asia — nations that today live with great security and prosperity.
Moreover, in discussing Russia’s “rightful place” as a great power, Obama also delivered a devastating indictment of the Putin regime’s vision of the world — the vision that has been force-fed to the Russian public for the past decade by Kremlin ideologues.
Yet unfortunately, there is sometimes a sense that old assumptions must prevail, old ways of thinking; a conception of power that is rooted in the past rather than in the future. There is the 20th century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another.
These assumptions are wrong. In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries.
I’m not sure there is anyone of any consequence in the U.S. who subscribes to those 19th- and 20th-Century views, so this one’s pretty clearly directed at the Kremlin.
On the minus side:
I believe that the free market is the greatest force for creating and distributing wealth that the world has known. But wherever the market is allowed to run rampant — through excessive risk-taking, a lack of regulation, or corruption — then all are endangered, whether we live on the Mississippi or on the Volga.
Even if one argues that the economic crisis was brought about completely by market forces, the market being “allowed to run rampant” is strikingly negative imagery. And sure corruption is not just “the market running rampant”; it is a distortion of the market that is intimately bound to government power.
I’m rather torn on Obama’s reference to the coup in Honduras:
Even as we meet here today, America supports now the restoration of the democratically-elected President of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies. We do so not because we agree with him. We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not.
On the one hand, I’m inclined to agree with the view that the coup was intended to thwart the democratically-elected president’s dictatorial aspirations, not to thwart democracy. On the other hand, the statement was a strategically shrewd one, making the point that America’s support for democracy and opposition to tyranny is not just a euphemism for supporting leaders who are in our pocket and undermining ones who are in disagreement with us.
Overall, a very good speech, though I’m not sure how many hearts and minds it will win.