Wednesday, March 26, 2014

President Obama's speech in Brussels - one of the most important of his presidency

One of the things we know from reading about President Obama's life story is that while he was practicing law in Chicago, he taught classes on the topic of "power." I've always wished that either he or someone who attended one would outline the content of what he taught. Perhaps the President will do that once his second term is over. He doesn't tend to speak directly about the topic, but from listening to him refer to it in other contexts, what I've deduced is that he embraces the power of partnership as the alternative to our more traditional concept of the power of domination.

Today the President began his speech in Brussels with a history lesson on the power of partnership vs the power of domination.
Throughout human history, societies have grappled with the question of how to organize themselves – the proper relationship between the individual and the state; and the best means to resolve inevitable conflicts between states. And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle—through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution—that a particular set of ideals began to emerge. The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding. Those ideas eventually inspired a band of colonists across an ocean, and they wrote them into the Founding documents that still guide America today, including the simple truth that all men—and women—are created equal.

But those ideals have also been tested – and threatened – by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, and that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign. Often, it roots itself in the notion that by virtue of race or faith or ethnicity, some are inherently superior to others, and that individual identity must be defined by “us” versus “them” or that national greatness must flow – not by what a people stand for, but by what they are against.

In many ways, the history of Europe in the 20th century represented the ongoing clash of these two sets of ideas, both within nations and among nations.
President Obama went on to use that frame to describe what has happened - not just in Europe - but around the globe since WWII. This is an amazing statement coming from an American President!
This story of human progress was by no means limited to Europe. Indeed, the ideals that came to define our alliance also inspired movements across the globe - among those very people who had too often been denied their full rights by Western powers. After the Second World War, people from Africa to India threw off the yoke of colonialism to secure their independence. In America, citizens took freedom rides and endured beatings to put an end to segregation, and to secure their civil rights. As the Iron Curtain fell here in Europe, the iron fist of Apartheid was unclenched, and Nelson Mandela emerged from prison to lead a multi-racial democracy. Latin American nations rejected dictatorship and built new democracies, and Asian nations showed that development and democracy could go hand in hand.
As someone who appreciates looking at the world through a big picture lens, that is a pretty comprehensive view of the struggles that encompassed the last half of the 20th century. He then used that frame to demonstrate that the actions of President Putin in the Ukraine are an attempt to revive the power of dominance - once again suggesting that he is operating from a 20th century approach in a 21st century world.

He laid the outcome of the ongoing struggle between these two approaches squarely on our shoulders. And yes, I LOVED his reference to his Kenyan father and the time he spent growing up in Indonesia - making the subtle point that he understands that the U.S. and Europe have not always been on the right side of this struggle.
And it is you, the young people of Europe, who will help decide which way the currents of history will flow. Don’t think for a moment that your own freedom, your own prosperity, your own moral imagination is bound by the limits of your community or even your country. You can choose a better history. That’s what Europe tells us. That’s what the American experience is all about.

I say this as the President of a country that looked to Europe for the values that are written into our founding documents, and which spilled blood to ensure that those values could endure on these shores. I also say that as the son of a Kenyan whose grandfather was a cook for the British, and as a person who once lived in Indonesia as it emerged from colonialism. The ideals that unite us matter equally to the young people of Boston or Brussels, Jakarta or Nairobi, Krakow or Kyiv.

In the end, the success of our ideals comes down to us— including the example of our own lives; our own societies...

If we hold firm to our principles, and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve, then I have no doubt that hope will overcome fear, and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny – because that is what forever stirs the human heart.
I believe this is one of the most important speeches of Obama's presidency. For me it ranks right up there with his speech on race as well as the one's he gave in Cairo and Copenhagen. He is doing all he can to prod and inspire us as individuals, as a country and as a global community to leave behind the antiquated ideas about dominance and find our success in the power of partnership.


  1. Thank you Nancy, I will have to go see if I can find the Video. He is just amazing. The people and countries who underestimate him, do so with ignorance and a closed mind.

  2. Great to see this - the video is here:


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