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Statues and Statecraft: President Prepares to Address the World From Brandenburg Gate

How does a nation turn rivals into friends? The answer is not doing the sorts of things that impress the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. Rather it is by being a nation that others are eager to befriend in the way that second cousins are eager to reconnect with lottery-winning relatives: because it is their interest to do so.

This column is part of an ongoing series of essays examining and applying the timeless principles and truths of the Federalist Papers to the political events of our day.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Senator Obama sharply criticized President George W. Bush for damaging the American name abroad, punctuated by a trip to Germany to address the “people of the world” as a “proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world.” He spoke of the need for united efforts against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, global poverty, genocide, and the metaphorical “walls” that divide one people from another.  Tomorrow, he’ll speak again in Germany, this time as president, but having done surprisingly little to improve America’s standing among the “people of the world.”

President Obama will speak from Berlin's Brandenburg Gate Wednesday (wiki commons)

At the time Mr. Obama issued his criticism of President Bush, worldwide approval of U.S. leadership was just 34%, according to Gallup polling. A year later, with Mr. Obama in the White House, it was 51%--and the President was fitting himself for a Nobel Peace Prize. But today it is down to 41%, a troubling development--at least within the confines of the President’s foreign policy vision.

“Soft power,” a term coined by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, is a measure of a nation’s ability “to get what [it wants] through attraction rather than through coercion.” Five years of good will tours, relationship “resets,” apologies, and “leading from behind” make it clear that President Obama seeks to gain “soft power” influence with other nations by presenting to the world, in word and deed, a teddy-bear America: cute, cuddly, and non-threatening--if perhaps a few sizes too large to fit comfortably in a baby’s crib.

The American founders also understood that physical force is not the only useful tool in international relations. But, as we see in Federalist 4, they had a very different notion of what it means to cultivate foreign friendships.

President Obama will speak before Berlin’s famous Brandenburg Gate, which, ironically, was commissioned by the Barack Obama of the founders’ day, King Frederick William II of Prussia. The King wanted a gate worthy of “an Athens on the River Spree,” a teddy-bear Prussia, re-branded after the belligerent reign of Frederick the Great. The gate was topped with a statue of the Roman goddess of victory, driving a four-horse chariot and adorned with a laurel of peace, a classical image the well-educated of Napoleon’s army must have appreciated as they marched triumphantly through the gate less than twenty years after it was built.

Charles Meynier's painting of Napoleon's army marching victoriously through the Brandengurg Gate in 1806. (wiki)

Meanwhile, in the backwaters of North America, John Jay (having benefitted from reading Thucydides and Herodotus during his own classical education) was arguing that only a strong Union would protect the United States from foreign aggressors. All the good intentions and statues in the world (nevermind “big data” phone records) mean little without the means and ends that link real victory to real peace.

That such aggressors will exist is at once assumed and demonstrated in Federalist 4 by a brief review of America’s commercial rivalries with Britain and France, among others. More generally, Jay warns that the United States should not expect other nations to “regard our advancement in union, in power and consequence by land and by sea, with an eye of indifference and composure.” Nations, like individuals, often resent the progress of others in power and prosperity, with or without just cause.

Nevertheless, Jay argues at the end of the essay that the United States might, instead, have nations seeking its friendship. How does a nation turn rivals into friends?

The answer is not doing the sorts of things that impress the Nobel Peace Prize Committee. Rather it is by being a nation that others are eager to befriend in the way that second cousins are eager to reconnect with lottery-winning relatives: because it is their interest to do so.

The Founders argued that nations do very little out of gratitude as we would define it in a personal relationship. George Washington’s Farewell Address included a strong warning against expecting favors from other countries. Alexander Hamilton, writing in defense of American neutrality in the war that followed the French Revolution, argued in Pacificus no. 4 that: “It may be affirmed as a general principle, that the predominant motive of good offices from one nation to another is the interest or advantage of the Nation, which performs them.”

This explains why Jay’s foreign policy to-do list looks very different from President Obama’s: “If they see that our national government is efficient and well administered, our trade prudently regulated, our militia properly organized and disciplined, our resources and finances discreetly managed, our credit re-established, our people free, contented, and united, they will be much more disposed to cultivate our friendship than provoke our resentment.”

It is hard to miss how many of our present difficulties are enumerated here.

While the President will attempt to teleprompt cosmopolitan confidence before the subjects of the EU nanny state tomorrow, his peers watching around the world won’t be fooled. They see the bunglings of an Administration whose signature piece of legislation, Obamacare, has been called a “trainwreck” by its friends--and the cravenness of an Administration that would rather blame an American citizen than foreign operatives for the death of its diplomats abroad. They see a ruling class incapable of acknowledging, much less rectifying, our nation’s long-term financial insolvency (including a 30-year deficit recently projected to be $107 trillion). They see an American public demoralized by a seemingly-endless economic slump, now grown suspicious of a government apparently filled with snoops, sycophants, and partisan muscle-men. As Jay put it: “But whatever may be our situation ... certain it is, that foreign nations will know and view it exactly as it is; and they will act toward us accordingly.” Meanwhile, the cynics may simply chuckle, wondering, as the United States grows weaker, why Americans could have ever believed they could escape the long shadow of self-serving government.

Nevertheless, Americans once had good reason to believe they could establish “good government from reflection and choice,” even when none of the items on Jay’s list could be taken for granted. Despite their own trials with Napoleon (and his British enemies), they built a nation strong enough and free enough to attract friends and discourage enemies, so that, by 1838, it was not unreasonable for twenty-nine year-old Abraham Lincoln to boast: “All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.... If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Last week was the 26th anniversary of President Reagan’s memorable speech before the same Brandenburg Gate. Speaking to an Old World that had barely survived one suicide attempt and was still contemplating another, President Reagan issued his stirring challenge: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” The Soviet leader, of course, demurred, but the people of Germany didn’t--the fatal draught from the poisoned cup deferred, at least, to another day.

Regardless of what President Obama says tomorrow, the realities of our weakened condition will remain for the world--and, if we are willing, for us--to see. But equally visible, if we are willing, is the way forward, outlined two and a quarter centuries ago for a people whose own future seemed at least as precarious and uncertain as ours.

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