Hope & Flattery in Prague

The U.S. president addresses Czechs adapting his “Yes we can!” to address issues of nuclear proliferation and climate change

News | Christian Cummins | May 2009

U.S. President Barack Obama during the welcome ceremony at the Prague Airport, for the U.S.-EU Summit (Photo: Jan Sochor)

For his first public speech abroad since his inauguration, Obama chose a suitably razzle-dazzle destination – Hradcany Square outside Prague Castle. I was among the thousands of people who turned up to listen to the U.S. President, dragging myself out of bed after a long night among the myriad charms of that beautiful city, and then queuing in the soft spring sunshine to catch a glimpse of the man who has dominated our headlines for so many months.

If that sounds like celebrity-politician hysteria, it wasn’t. I’m very wary of cults of personality growing around any politicians. But Obama is clearly the most significant political phenomenon of my generation. To boot, the current occupant of the White House is a lively, subtle intelligence that is as likely to surprise as he is to please.

"Yes We Can" Does Europe

But this is a man who knows how to please even when giving very little away. In front of an enthusiastic crowd he adapted his hope-filled "Yes We Can" speech that had swept him to election victory last November to the exotic Czech setting:

"Few people would have predicted that someone like me would one day become the President of the United States." He announced, to tumultuous applause. "Few people would have predicted that an American President would one day be permitted to speak to an audience like this in Prague."

It was now noticeably the elder members of the audience, those who remembered Communism first hand, who clapped the most resolutely.

"Few would have imagined that the Czech Republic would become a free nation, a member of NATO, a leader of a united Europe. Those ideas would have been dismissed as dreams."

Many Czechs are deeply mistrustful of both NATO policy and some of the plans of that ‘united Europe’, but for the moment, that mattered very little. Here was Obama in the city where the youth of the then-Czechoslovakia once bloodlessly disposed of communist power during the Velvet Revolution. Maybe some of those who had occupied Wenceslas Square 20 years ago were now on Hradcany Square. This was a leader who

knew how to sell his updated brand of American optimism:

"We are here today because enough people ignored the voices who told them that the world could not change." The applause had, by now, transformed into loud cheers.

The Rock Star President

Maybe it was the volume, or that Bono-esque last sentence, or maybe it was the sunshine and the skimpy clothes of the crowd, but I started to have the feeling of being at a rock festival. It’s common for detractors of Barack Obama to label him the "rock star president," insinuating that he is just too damned glamorous for his own good. But perhaps we should embrace that epithet, patronizing as it is. Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush’s appeal was a deliberately earthy charm. He wanted people to believe he was just a ‘regular kind of guy’. Obama’s message was going down so well, I felt, because he was echoing the century-old ethos of Hollywood: You’ve got to reach for the stars. Emotionally it is very successful, even in cynical Europe.

Hradcany Square is adorned with these wonderful many-branched green lamp-posts that look rather like giant candle-sticks. A Greenpeace activist had hoisted himself on top of one with a huge banner urging Obama to take action against climate change. It was an issue the President indeed addressed, saying it was imperative to end the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, by tapping the power of new sources of energy "like the wind and sun." He called upon all nations to do their part. I stood on tip-toes to see if I could see the proud pencil-mustached face of Vaclav Klaus as he listened. The Czech President recently dismissed global warming as a "myth" and warned that our obsession with reducing carbon emissions was endangering the global economy. The loud cheers from the crowd at Obama’s proclamation must have made Klaus wince.

A Nuclear Free World

But the main bulk of the speech was dedicated to nuclear issues- Obama had come to Prague to announce his utopian vision of a nuclear-free future, saying that the United States – the only country to have used a nuclear weapon – had a moral responsibility to act. That’s a big goal - an unrealistic one, you might say. But Obama likes big ideas. When I spoke to members of the crowd afterwards, it was that mixture of ambition and hope that had seduced many of those present.

"To have the President of the United States say that he is committed to nuclear disarmament is amazing," one Prague resident told me. "And to know that he means it and is going to try and follow through… well, I never thought I’d hear that."


Others were less impressed. Many Czechs in particular were disappointed that so much of the speech was dedicated to nuclear issues. And despite the glossy vision of a world without the bomb, Obama quickly admitted that this goal was unlikely to be achieved in his lifetime, adding that the U.S. would only get rid of its weapons when everyone else had got rid of theirs first. You can, of course, imagine some small resistance to that idea from the seven other states known to have nuclear arms.

"It will take patience and persistence," he conceded. The small print of the hopeful rhetoric was pretty predictable, but it had dampened the enthusiasm of many.

That said, it would be wrong to dismiss the speech as rhetoric dream-land, given that dreams have been a recurrent theme of Obama’s overall message. He had some interesting concrete suggestions, pledging that he would press the U.S. Senate "immediately and aggressively" to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – a document has never fully endorsed by the U.S. – and he promised the crowd that he would press for a new global ban on the production of weapons-grade fissile materials. These details all break new ground.

Tough Talk

Obama had a tough message for North Korea and Iran on nuclear proliferation, on the day that North Korea tested a rocket in the sea near Japan : "Rules must be binding." He said. "Violations must be punished. Words must mean something."

That irked some of the young Czechs I spoke to afterwards. One of them, Mirek, objected that:

"He is using a lot of the same rhetoric as the Bush Administration. We’ve already experienced how horribly those policies turn out."

Many Czechs in the crowd had hoped that Obama would announce that the USA would be changing its plans to build a missile defense shield on Czech soil; a move that some believe would make the Czech Republic a potential target of America’s enemies. He did not, however. Instead he insisted that: "As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven."

"Such A Relief"

And then, in a flash, as if the charmer from the White House felt his speech was getting a little too heavy on the tough talk, Obama returned to that winning combination of hope and flattery, all delivered in his seductive baritone and accompanied by that famous smile:

"I know that a call to arms can stir the souls of men and women more than a call to lay them down. But that is why the voices for peace and progress must be raised together. Those are the voices that still echo through the streets of Prague. Those are the ghosts of 1968. Those were the joyful sounds of the Velvet Revolution. Those were the Czechs who helped bring down a nuclear-armed empire without firing a shot."

Then he was off, whisked away in an entourage of men in dark glasses, leaving the huge crowd to turn to each other and begin discussing what they had seen and heard.

Matt Hayes, one of the thousands of Americans living in Prague, was left with a huge smile on his face at the memory of the cheering crowd.

"After the past 8 years. it was wonderful to have a U.S. President come here and be so warmly received. And to hear him with such a conciliatory and positive message is, after Bush, such a relief."

See also: Echoes of Kennedy, Waiting For Barack

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