Obama’s worrisome idioms: In reaction to his Berlin speech 4

I was impressed with Obama’s talk on race during the primaries – particularly his ability to deal with difficult issues. What he did with race, he does not with international relations

Obama’s ability to draw attention across the globe is incredible. There are even posters of him with a local political leader in many parts of Madras – something I have never seen of a foreign leader before. His appeal was clear in other parts of the world as well seen from the clamour in Israel and the crowds in Berlin. While he has the charisma to influence, I feel that he’s too stuck in the idioms of the past to bring any change in international relations.

While he talks a lot of changing partitions and a globalising world, Obama’s division of the world as the West and Rest is clear throughout the speech. He had little to talk of the rest that was positive. His references to the rest of the world was littered with terms like poverty, poppy seeds, terror, leaks of nuclear secrets, etc. The only positive reference was that of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He was also firmly stuck in the idiom of the “white man’s burden” of bringing prosperity, liberty, and peace to the world. There is no recognition in this man that the West has played a dual role in this matter. While the West has taken significant efforts to help the poor, it has also swindled. While the West has tried its hand at bringing liberty it has both imperialised nations and supports dictators.

Ignoring West’s dual role enables Obama to claim that Afgan people need “our” [Western] support against Taliban without a touch of irony. He could talk of supporting the Blogger in Iran and voter in Zimbawe but is silent on prisoner in Guantanamo or Abu Gharib. The world has seen with horror West coming to the “rescue” people of other countries time and again for many centuries as of today.

Let me reiterate here that there are two contradictory things happening at the same time: one on hand, there are people genuinely concerned in the West about people elsewhere. There is genuine commitment of money, time and lives to assist unknown people elsewhere. This is wonderful, and it must continue. At the same time the West has been the worst of colonisers and it continues to support dictators around the world. West’s role in creating and supporting Taliban, Saddam, Osama himself, and many other dictators should not be forgotten. Obama will do little service to the world by extending the idiom of White man’s burden. If he wants to bring a real politics of hope in international relations he has to start dealing with the likes of School of Americas, stop propping up puppet regimes, stop interfering with domestic politics elsewhere, stop arming dictators, and stop waging useless wars.

It would be remarkable if he could bring these issues into the public domain with the same grit and charisma the he showed when talking of race. Acknowledging West’s dual role and promising to end the oppressive side of it would be the really radical step that can bring a hopeful turn to international relations. But going by Obama’s idioms at Berlin, hope has no hope on this front.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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4 thoughts on “Obama’s worrisome idioms: In reaction to his Berlin speech

  • Chris Morley


    Obama’s speech patterns and choices of words have certainly moved toward the “center” of U.S. politics. However, I believe this to be more reflective of the realities of American politics than of any personal predilictions on Obama’s part. In order to get elected, he must speak, first and foremost, to a broad swath of U.S. voters. I believe he WILL bring change in U.S. foreign policies, but it will need to be gradual, and will begin with his election to the presidency. And that will, unfortunately, take a bit word-mincing with the American public, much of which is a bit behind the curve on ideas you correctly express here. For it is they, and not the international community, who will cast votes.

    Observe his words and actions AFTER the election – that will be a far better indicator than the current sound bytes that are hopelessly distorted by the U.S. electoral process. I have no idea whether he will or will not represent good change in the end – but he has been our best hope yet, and I’m betting on him. That said, I certainly do hope he ends up holding to the principles you profess in this blog post – we are on the same page there!


  • Vivek

    Hi Chris, Between the candidates, I think I’ll bet on him too. But I take little comfort from you on the idea that he will change and become better once he becomes the president.  In a set-up that is too entrenched, it takes a person with rather strong ideas and skills to bring about a change.  I am not sure if he has thought much about bringing a hopeful change in foreign policies at all.  And one does not get that kind of time and luxury of space to think these things through and operationalise them in a hugely entrenched set up when you are a president.
    Some of his talk foreign policy talk sounds disastrous to me, for example on striking Pakistan.  I should say though that it’s not just the US where a “leader” is supposed to be hawkish when it comes to foreign policy. You do not hear too many sane voices in India as well (and I guess in most other parts of the world). Statesmanship in foreign policy does not seem to be a reality in our times.

  • Sarah

    Hello Vivek. This is a perceptive post. I did not hear Obama’s speech in Berlin and only just read it now. I too am a fan of his. However there is nary a reference in this speech to Europe’s colonial history and American imperialism. This troubles me. Perhaps the context of Berlin was not the ideal place to systematically address this topic, but he still could have made a nod to these shameful tendencies of “the West.” As you astutely note, the White Man’s Burden is a contradictory impulse that derives from both noble and ignoble notions of the so-called superiority of the West.

    That said, something Obama’s former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright recently said in an interview with Bill Moyers gives me hope that Obama does in fact understand how we need a new dialectic of global relations. Wright complained how “A lotta the missionaries were going to other countries assuming that our culture is superior, that you have no culture. And to be a Christian, you must be like us. Right now, you can go to Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and see Christians in 140-degree weather. They have to have on a tie. Because that’s what it means to be a Christian.”

    Presently Obama may not be able to question the very framework that will get him elected in the coming months, but if his pastor really did have a significant impact on him we can indeed have hope, as Chris suggests, that he will begin to try once elected.

  • Phil Sieve

    What does wearing a suit have to do with Christianity? Not dressing like you’re at a casual dinner party or a Brittany Spears concert would help, if that were the problem in America, because one is to casual and the other would be showing too much flesh (and admit it guys and gals, guys, unless homosexual, are looking). Whatever is formal businesswear in a country is fine with me as a Christian. It’s really that the West is dominant in the world and it set the clothing standards somehow.

    Kissinger wrote this NSSM 200 work that spoke of population control cutting down the numbers in other lands in order to dominate them. The U.N.’s UNFPA branch and Planned Parenthood International takes care of that. These are NWO brain-childs. The NWO types are usually white leaders who, over centuries, have looked down on the poor as “useless eaters” and resource drainers. They have their “useful idiots” like the Irrev.s Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Obama, who sell out their people for whatever. They make themselves apart from their people as they make nanny-states of countries usually south of the equatorial border. For these reasons, nothing will change under Obama, except that his worshippers around the world may enact some economy boosting measures in optimism (oddly placed in a man whose party’s affirmative action crippled the U.S. economy and are guilty of the muder of those born alive and of associating with domestic terrorists by association).
    Regarding his domestic policies, we should be concerned about far more than his idioms, especially since we’re surrounded by socialist countries, some of whom persecute dissenters who are lambs (compared to Ayers and crew) as being as dangerous as terrorists. I think Pres. Bush was playing around with the idea of Ameros as currency for the Americas. That would have drained us. The Weather Underground would be proud. Obama just may do it.