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McCain-Obama Race Grabs Attention Across Europe

July 24, 2008 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Some 200,000 people are estimated to have attended Sen. Barack Obama's speech in Berlin Thursday, a sign of the increased interest abroad in this year's U.S. election. A panel of European journalists offer insight.
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MARGARET WARNER: Huge crowds turned out at Berlin’s Tiergarten Park today to hear Barack Obama call for stronger cooperation between the United States and Europe.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: In this new world, such dangerous currents have swept along faster than our efforts to contain them. And that is why we cannot afford to be divided. No one nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone.

Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future. But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama said Europe and the U.S. must work together on common security threats.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: This is the moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it. This threat is real, and we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it.

This is the moment when we must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan and the traffickers who sell drugs on your streets.

No one welcomes war. I recognize the enormous difficulties in Afghanistan. But my country and yours have a stake in seeing that NATO’s first mission beyond Europe’s borders is a success.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama closed by looking ahead.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. We are a people of improbable hope. With an eye towards the future, with resolve in our heart, let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again.

MARGARET WARNER: In earlier meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the foreign minister, Obama affirmed his commitment to do more on climate change and to involve the U.S. in negotiations with Europe and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program.

This was Obama’s first trip to Germany as a senator. Republican John McCain has been to Europe more than 20 times since 2000, a point he emphasized to reporters outside a German restaurant in Ohio this afternoon.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I have very good relations with many of the European leaders. I’ve had many meetings with Chancellor Merkel over the years.

I have visited with President Sarkozy. He has visited with me in Washington. The same thing goes with Prime Minister Gordon Brown and others.

So I know them well. It’s not my first meeting with them, so I know them. I know their relations. And I’m very happy that a lot of these new leaders in Europe, particularly in France and Germany, are much more pro-American than their predecessors were.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama will meet with Sarkozy in Paris tomorrow and with Brown in London on Saturday.

Obama speaks in Berlin

Constanze Steltzenmuller
German Marshall Fund
What Barack Obama did tonight was to give a speech that was both about our common history and about globalization, which makes us all citizens of the world, as he said.

For the European perspective on the U.S. presidential race, we turn to Constanze Steltzenmuller, director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund, which promotes transatlantic relations. She's a former correspondent for the weekly German newspaper Die Ziet.

Christine Ockrent, a longtime anchorwoman and correspondent on French television, she's now director general of French TV and Radio World Service.

And Jonathan Freedland, a columnist for the British newspaper the Guardian, he's also in Berlin tonight.

Welcome to you all.

Constanze, you were at the speech today. How did it sound to you? How do you think it will sound to German ears?

CONSTANZE STELTZENMULLER, German Marshall Fund: Well, I heard how it sounded to German ears. People were, I think, very respectful, very admiring of this very unique man. I stood literally a stone's throw from him and saw how people were listening with rapt attention.

I wouldn't say they were rocked by him, and maybe that wouldn't have been very good for an American audience. But they were very impressed.

MARGARET WARNER: And what impresses them? Why are they fascinated by Barack Obama in Germany, as the polls show?

CONSTANZE STELTZENMULLER: Well, what Barack Obama did tonight was to give a speech that was both about our common history and about globalization, which makes us all citizens of the world, as he said.

And he, I think for Germans, embodies globalization, because he really is an Afro-American, with a white mother and an African father from Kenya. And that, to Germans, embodies the promise of self-renewal that America -- that really is at the root of America for them.

Hope in the American dream

Christine Ockrent
Broadcast journalist
There is a hope of a sort of resurgence of the American dream, which to us Europeans and to the French has really sort of been deflated for the past few years.

MARGARET WARNER: Christine Ockrent, how do you think this speech will be received in France where Obama is coming tomorrow?

CHRISTINE OCKRENT, Broadcast Journalist: Oh, I think it will be received very well, indeed, and has been received very well tonight. You know, the French have really succumbed to Obama-mania.

But deep down, I think it very much relates to what Constanze just said. First of all, there is a hope of a sort of resurgence of the American dream, which to us Europeans and to the French has really sort of been deflated for the past few years.

And then the fact that the senator embodies a sort of multicultural, multiracial approach to the world, it's really some hope for a kind of reconciliation.

Now, that may be a very sentimental, superficial approach, but I think it accounts a great deal for the impact that he's had, even if his speech was very carefully worded, was in a way very mild, a bit Pollyannaish, you know, about wanting to address all the evils of the world.

But at the same time it was very clever, because what mattered most, of course, was the picture. And the picture of that huge crowd, you know, waving and cheering, that was really worth his while.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Jonathan Freedland, in Britain, do you think it will have the same, as Christine discussed, impact, both the speech and his appearance?

JONATHAN FREEDLAND, The Guardian: Well, in a way, they are the same thing, I think you've been hearing from my two colleagues here. It's almost just the symbol of the man rather than necessarily the words that come out of his mouth that have fueled this Obama-mania across Europe.

He's certainly -- I've written -- in the piece I've written for the Guardian tonight, I've suggested that there is not a serving politician in the world who is now more popular than him, even though at the moment he's only ever been elected to the junior Senate seat from Illinois. It's a pretty remarkable state of affairs.

But he does -- what he embodies is and he becomes an outlet for is that degree of yearning I think you're hearing here, which is a lot of people across Europe, misjudged as being anti-American during the Bush years, really were not.

As Christine Ockrent says, they were people who actually believe in the American dream and have wanted somebody who can allow that belief to come, almost a valve, an outlet for that pro-Americanism. They've not been able to feel that in the Bush years.

And Barack Obama comes along with his improbable journey, as he puts it, his remarkable life story, what he embodies, and therefore says, "It's OK. You can be pro-American again. You can believe in America again."

And by invoking the 1948 Berlin blockade, the Berlin airlift, as he did in his speech tonight, he reminds Berliners, Germans, others of when America and the rest of the world were hand-in-hand working together. And that's the America so many people are yearning to get back to, and Barack Obama says it's possible.

Europe's image of McCain

Jonathan Freedland
The Guardian
McCain in Britain is seen as being, yes, a different kind of Republican. People like his maverick stances on issues, for example, like torture.

MARGARET WARNER: But now, Constanze, John McCain as a senator has been, in fact, a big Europeanist. He's been to Europe many, many times. He is a big NATO supporter. He supported NATO enlargement in the face of Russian opposition.

Why is that not also -- why does that not also address the yearning that you all are talking about, the yearning in Europe for a change in this relationship?

CONSTANZE STELTZENMULLER: Well, a lot of Germans, not just the foreign policy community, do understand that McCain is a very unusual Republican. He's not just a genuine war hero; he's somebody who knows Europe well and who's an internationalist, who's against protectionism, and who's a courageous man, who's willing to brook a lot of criticism and opposition within his own camp. And I think that rather impresses Europeans.

Frankly, the choice between Barack Obama and John McCain is what we Germans would call a luxusproblem, a luxury problem. It's like the "West Wing" on steroids.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning either choice would be preferable in Europe's eyes?

CONSTANZE STELTZENMULLER: Meaning we'd like to have your problem here in Europe.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, I see.

CONSTANZE STELTZENMULLER: We'd like to have politician this impressive as a choice in our elections. And, remember, we have an election upcoming in 2009.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, you do.

And, Christine Ockrent, what about McCain's image in France?

CHRISTINE OCKRENT: Well, I think Sen. McCain is well-respected, you know, from those who are familiar enough with American history, American politics. But he comes across -- how could I put it -- as someone from the previous century, with all due respect.

And the French have not been much exposed to him, although, as you said, he's been in Europe many times, he's a supporter, he's, for a Republican, certainly a multilateralist of sorts.

But, frankly, for the yearning that Jonathan was expressing and that I think we all feel, McCain does not quite have the same appeal, which may be, of course, very unfair.

But, you know, in our democracies, our media-savvy opinion polls also are very much influenced by style, by charisma, by looks, and by the sense of drama, in a way. And Obama has been extremely good at conveying that, it seems to me, not only to the American people, but, indeed, to the world at large.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Jonathan, what about McCain in London and in Britain in general?

And then, also, since I don't want to run out of time here, tell us what you think Europeans really want, other than style and a new beginning, from the U.S.-European relationship? And are they going to get it from whoever's elected?

JONATHAN FREEDLAND: Well, first, on McCain, I think the first thing that would surprise a lot of American viewers of this broadcast is the level of detail of knowledge that ordinary Europeans, not experts or analysts, have about the American elections.

There was somebody I was interviewing here in Berlin tonight, a 27-year-old computer guy, who was giving me great detail on John McCain's policy positions. People here are following this election very closely.

McCain in Britain is seen as being, yes, a different kind of Republican. People like his maverick stances on issues, for example, like torture.

On the other hand, what sinks him in European eyes and British eyes is his close association with George W. Bush. The fact that he is a hawk on foreign policy does not endear him to European publics; the fear that he would once again lead us all into another Middle Eastern perhaps war.

And that war-like, bellicose talk, for example, on Iran contrasts poorly for him with Barack Obama's talk about engagement and speaking. That just happens to be the kind of European way, preferring jaw-jaw, in Winston Churchill's words, over war-war.

European expectations

And as for what they want, I think Barack Obama intuitively and calculatedly touched that shopping list of issues that Europeans want action on in his speech today. Tacitly, he said over and over again how he would not be like George W. Bush.

A powerful line -- I think we heard it just before in the tape there from the speech -- in which he said, "No country, no matter how large or powerful, can solve these problems alone," in other words, an end to unilateralism. That's first on a lot of European shopping lists.

He talked about action on climate change. He talked about an end to torture. And he said about Iraq, "Finally, this war will come to a close."

Well, in those three or four statements, he got pretty close to saying what Europeans want to hear and see acted from America.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Christine, he also was very clear that he's going to -- he would ask Europe to step up and do more in Afghanistan, more troops, more dangerous missions, that he'd ask Europe to help more in rebuilding a post-U.S.-occupied Iraq.

I mean, was that welcome? Or is Europe ready to step up to that sort of challenge?

CONSTANZE STELTZENMULLER: Well, you know, the French are quite heavily involved in Afghanistan. We've had troops there since -- for the past six years.

The French are back in Iraq. There were a few official visits to Iraq, and French investments are encouraged to get back to Iraq. So, in terms of policies, you know, President Sarkozy has really taken a very different attitude from his predecessor vis-a-vis Washington, whoever sits in Washington.

And so I think it will be, of course, a difficult exercise for the French public opinion to understand what is at stake in Afghanistan more than they do now.

But in terms of policies, it's pretty much there already. Now, of course, the problem remains, as you put it, that if, indeed, Obama is elected and if, indeed -- or McCain, for that matter -- I think that, on Afghanistan, they pretty much have, you know, the same speech. And it's obvious that Afghanistan is a very, very tense and difficult fight.

And so, yes, we will be asked probably to put more effort into Afghanistan. And that will be a difficult moment for our governments.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And we're at a difficult moment. We have to end it there. But thank you all three very much.