It was a good speech, a very good speech indeed.
Maybe in time, President Barack Obama’s inauguration address will even be judged to be a great speech. But for the watching and listening hundreds of millions in America and around the world, it was a little lacking in the now familiar, much anticipated, soaring rhetoric, apart from the concluding bit. And for those who like punchy soundbites, there were none, though in time some of the lines will be repeatedly quoted and may well become unforgettable. But as a statement of principles it was powerful stuff.
It was a good speech, a speech fit for such a historic moment – “a moment that will define a generation,” according to Mr Obama, a genuinely great moment for the American people and above all, for those who can now truly believe, in the gloriously prescient words of Martin Luther King Jr, that “they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Indeed, the moment itself could be said to have overshadowed anything anyone, including the charismatic and inspirational Barack Obama, could have said at the dawn of a new era in America and in the face of the testing times before him, the American nation and the world at large.
We do not need here and now to deconstruct President Obama’s speech. That is already being done. But its message was clear to all and is sure to be revisited time and time again as the Obama administration sets about implementing its ambitious agenda.
In making a clean break with his predecessor’s disastrous and divisive legacy, Mr Obama made a strong call for “a new era of responsibility,” both at home and abroad to put things right. Rather than a call to arms, it was a call to action, a call to Americans to “begin again the work of remaking America,” to work together for the collective good of America and the world.
It is the new President’s vision of America’s standing and role in the world with which we are here more concerned, especially as this appears to be directly influenced by the idea of ‘smart power,’ as opposed to neo-conservative notions of hard power or earlier theories of soft power.
In this respect, we recall our editorial of December 14, 2007, in which we considered the report of the bipartisan Commission on Smart Power. This aimed to provide US policymakers and, in particular, the next president, with a strategic vision for integrating soft and hard power tools into ‘smart power,’ in order to address current and future challenges and opportunities in the international arena and to chart a new approach to foreign policy.
As explained by its principals, Richard Armitage and Joseph Nye Jr, ‘smart power’ is essentially “a smarter strategy that blends [US] ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power,” that is, American economic and military might, with the “ability to attract and persuade,” in exercising world leadership.
It was therefore heartening to hear President Obama declaring that “our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please” and that “power grows through its prudent use.” In so doing and in promising the rest of the world that America is “ready to lead once more,” he committed to working with “old friends and former foes.” In addressing the Muslim world, he spoke of a “new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”
It was reassuring too to hear him pledge to work alongside poor nations and to hear him call on rich nations to take note of “the suffering outside our borders” and to be better custodians of the world’s resources. These principles go back to the very core of the smart power report and specific recommendations aimed at investing in a new multilateralism by reinvigorating alliances, partnerships and institutions to address multiple hazards simultaneously.
However, the 44th President’s message was not just about the emergence of “a kinder, gentler nation,” to borrow from George Herbert Walker Bush, who, somewhat ironically, pledged in his own inaugural address in 1989 to use American strength as “a force for good,” and whose own legacy was so dishonoured by his son.
For within the velvet glove, there was more than a hint of the iron fist, as Mr Obama, the commander-in-chief, paid tribute to America’s fallen warriors and promised to be unwavering in the defence of America and its way of life and to defeat those who would spread terror and death. Barack Obama has put a new, welcome face on the United States of America. Expectations are high, perhaps unreasonably so. But he has signalled his intent to be realistic and to manage them in order to meet the challenges ahead.
He has signalled his intent to lead by engaging with the American people and with the rest of the world. That in itself, is cause for hope and optimism that he can deliver the change he has promised.
It was a good speech, full of brave words and the promise of a smarter America. We wish him well.