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Opinion: Obama abroad

A panel of experts sounds off on their impressions of the U.S. president's European tour

Posted: April 9, 2009

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Opinion: Obama abroad

Flashing idealism

By Tomáš Vachuda

Though still within the first 100 days of the Obama administration, we already see signs of grumbling that the astronomical expectations of some, even a few idealistic wishes of the president himself, linger unmet. No doubt, President Havel offered President Obama wise counsel, to carefully manage public expectations. So much for nonpolitical politics.

But high expectations and idealism should be the order of the day in this troubled time. Better to lead, to inspire with and strive for lofty goals - even if only partially realized - than to drift rudderless.

Setting aside the specific initiatives of Obama's three European summits, it is an achievement within the first 100 days to witness the U.S. president visit Europe and be treated with dignity and respect, and to see the United States reclaim its historical yoke and mantle. President Obama's visit to Europe and the prior visit of Vice President Joe Biden, who masterfully laid the groundwork, represent a process of rekindling crucial U.S. and pan‑European cooperation and desegregating American interests and global interests.

However, all this cannot and is not happening instantly. Albeit absolutely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, the arrangements at Obama's speech in Prague show that some of the old ways remain. As the president spoke highly of the Czech people and the Czech Republic, of opportunity for all and a world less divided, his audience was divided, and I do not mean the places reserved for dignitaries and press. I mean the ring around the podium that was reserved for several thousand individuals with invitations. These fortunate individuals, not VIPs or dignitaries but predominantly the children of privilege, could arrive as the speech began and have a better view than an ordinary attendee who queued up since 6 a.m.

For some standing in the ordinary crowd for hours watching the stream of invitees march by, a tiny tinge of the idealism lost its luster.

- The author is managing partner of the Vachuda & Co. law firm, teaches at New York University in Prague and the Anglo-American University and formerly worked as a Democratic Party pollster in Seattle.

Blowing it

By Martin J. Stránský

In his speech announcing a new U.S.-led initiative in arms reduction, President Barack Obama noted how unlikely it would have been at the time of his birth to imagine that, in the near future, an African-American president would be speaking in the free city of Prague. Even less likely would have been envisioning the Czech Republic as presiding over a new union of European states. Today, both scenarios have been realized: the first one successful, the second a total failure.

Unfortunately, the Czechs have done their best to live up to their reputation as the political clown princes of Europe. Though Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek had some success in his first few months as EU leader, he was soon eclipsed by the row over the Czech Republic's official work of art contribution to the EU, David Černý's Entropa. If this wasn't enough to endear the country to the EU, the never-ending pubertal squabbling of the country's politicians led to a vote of no-confidence and the downfall of the government in the middle of the EU presidency. Predictably, the only person to welcome the news was President Václav Klaus, who refuses to fly the EU flag above Prague Castle, claiming the EU is an organization just as dangerous as the former communist empire.

No wonder the U.S. presidential protocol team had an ulcer. The official state dinner welcoming the U.S. president went out the window, and was replaced with a brief breakfast of the U.S. and Czech presidents and the lame-duck prime minister. And, since Topolánek, though married, has an official mistress (one of the prerequisites for gaining Czech popularity), Michelle Obama had to take in Prague "on her own." In the end, Obama had his one-on-one meeting with the only legitimate Czech politician who could be found: former President Václav Havel.

Next, the Czech government agreed to dissolve itself and install a technocratic Cabinet until the next elections. In doing so, they also quashed the work of the most successful minister of foreign affairs in the country's history, Karel Schwarzenberg, and, with him, any hope at all of a positive outcome to the country's EU presidency.


- The author is a Prague-based physician, publisher and dual U.S.-Czech citizen.

Political impotence

By Benjamin Tallis

Whether smashing up banks, burning effigies of bankers or urging people to harm Bono, there was definitely a lot of anger on the streets of London last week as President Obama made his way through. The G20 summit attracted large-scale protests from diverse groups eager to vent their frustration on topics ranging from climate change to the credit crunch.

However, many commentators have argued that venting was about all that was going on. Even at the heart of the protest outside the Bank of England, there was a bizarre mix of spectacle and stagnation, with the sporadic excitement of dodging the battalions of baton-wielding robocops interspersed with the long periods of standing around in the sun. Protester doubled as photographer, demonstrator as dancer and provocateur as voyeur. Professor Frank Furedi described it as a "caricature of a riot," dismissing the demo as "a half-hearted ritual of pretend-rage and pseudo-concern."

This is unfair. Although the content of the protest was hardly cohesive or consistent, its form reflected a lack of other options in the current climate. The diverse groups involved are actually objecting to facets of the same thing: the current political arrangements that put profits before people, imperil the planet and, crucially, exclude the people from politics and power.

The G20 and Obama's attempt to disguise more of the same as a new world order won't address this. Neither will a middle-class day out with concessions to angry anarchists around the edges. What we need is real democracy, and for that we need to get engaged in politics by creating new political parties or reforming existing ones. We need to hold our governments to account, and although protesting alone won't achieve this, it isn't a bad start.

We need to build on this platform and get meaningfully political. Isolated meetings of touring world leaders only put us further away from power.

- The author is a London-based political and security expert who works with the pan-European Libertas party.

Securing nukes

By Mitchell A. Belfer

With international relations going through tremendous upheaval, it is remarkable that President Barack Obama has begun to center U.S. foreign policy on nuclear disarmament, considering the world contains only nine nuclear powers, most of which - with the exceptions of North Korea and Pakistan - are stable.

In doing so, Obama demonstrates a rather short-sighted approach to dealing with "rogue" North Korea and aspiring Iran. It is clear that Obama wants to "lead by example," to show North Korea and Iran that there are few security benefits to obtaining nuclear weapons, only the costs associated with decommissioning them in the long term. However, this will not be enough to dissuade North Korea's continued quest to develop its nuclear delivery systems or Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons of its own.

What is needed is a renewed anti-proliferation regime that tackles the wanton spread of nuclear materials, a regime that has the teeth to punish violators through diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions and, in extreme cases, limited deployments of international force. Obama's recent visit to Prague, his glossing over of unsavory international relations challenges - real challenges such as the United States' extension of the "war on terror" into Pakistan, and Russia's political aggression  - underscores "troubles ahead" in trans-Atlantic relations, as Obama seems poised to address issues where success is likely, adding to his domestic political clout.

After all, power perceived is power achieved.   

- The author is program coordinator for the Department of International Relations at Metropolitan University Prague.

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