EU Affairs

Obama in Brussels – Contest of ideals won by affirmation, rather than rejection

obama_bozar_w1Brussels, 27/03/2014. President Barack Obama’s speech last night to assembled dignitaries at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels was as inspirational as its content was expected. Redolent with references to America and Europe’s recent history, his speech was long on a shared system of beliefs, and how those ideals have influenced 21st century Europe as much as they have the United States.

To a 2,000 strong audience that included the King and Queen of Belgium, Belgian Prime Minister Elio di Rupo, the President of the European Commission and of the Council, President Obama framed his speech by pointing to a contest of ideals that had motivated Europeans and Americans alike for over a century.

The results of this contest took physical form in the cemeteries of northern Belgium and France, he said, but had also shown themselves more recently in Hungary’s break for freedom, the striking shipyard workers of Poland, the fall of the wall and the re-unification of Germany.

This contest of ideals had cost thousands of lives in Europe’s recent past, he said, and continues today because it remains at core the issue in the Ukraine. “In the 21st century,” he said, “the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn by force.”

Ukraine, he said, had rejected a government that stole from its citizens, and was reaching out for one that would better serve its people. This reaching out for the rule of dignity and of law would ultimately triumph, he believed, “because these ideals are true, and they are universal.”

As for Russian actions, President Obama said that, “Russia’s assault on [Ukraine’s] territorial integrity must be met with condemnation.” And he had a warning. “If Russia continues on its present course, its isolation will deepen.”

In a clear ruling out of military action, he admitted that Russia would not be dislodged from the Crimea by military force. However, he said, “with time the Russian people will come to understand that they cannot achieve their aims of security. prosperity and status through the use of brute force.”

America and the world believed in a strong and proud, yet responsible Russia, he said, but that does not mean it can ride roughshod over its neighbours. There is a fundamental at stake here, “of allowing people the ability to make their own choices.” And he pointed to the Arab Spring as a series of events that were driven not by external forces, but by people rising up on their own.

“We must not forget that we ourselves are heirs to a struggle for freedom,” he said, “and our ideals will only endure if we involve ourselves in the struggles for freedom of others.”

And with a hint of something like a call-to-arms, he addressed the audience directly. “It is up to you to determine which way these currents will flow … do not think that you are bound by tradition, history or ethnicity, but rather think of the ideals that unite us, from Boston to Brussels to Kiev … “

“We can insist on policies that benefit the many, rather than just the few,” he said. And, “instead of opposition, we can define ourselves by affirming what we believe in.”

The EU can influence whether the international order that so many have striven for moves forward or retreats, he said. And, “ultimately hope will overcome fear, and freedom triumph over tyranny, because that is in the human heart.”

© Philip Hunt, 2014.