At about midday next Tuesday, after taking the oath of office, U.S. President Barack Obama will set aside Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, turn to the crowd before the west front of the Capitol, and deliver his inaugural address.
(Note: A longer version of this article is available here)
We can expect Obama’s speech to be a cracker. He is the greatest orator of his generation, whose books reveal him also to be a gifted and subtle author. His cadences connect him to earlier figures such as Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.—and like those two men (but unlike, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt or Bill Clinton), Obama is his own best speechwriter. During the campaign he made his arguments to voters via a unique combination of new technologies (such as e–mail and Facebook) and old technologies (such as intelligence and wit).
Obama’s speeches were critical to his election as president. His chief foreign-policy calling card throughout the campaign was the nuanced and pragmatic speech he gave in Chicago in October 2002 against the Iraq war. He first climbed onto the national stage with his famous address to the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July 2004. His speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines in November 2007 put him on track to win the Iowa caucus.
Obama has an unusual belief in the power of rational argument. What did he do at the lowest point of his campaign, in March 2008, when he was forced to deal with the treacherous issue of race? He didn’t buy ad time or schedule a 60 Minutes interview: He rented a hall in Philadelphia and wrote some remarks. The result was a long, candid, and compelling argument that shut down a short-term political crisis and helped establish his presidential bona fides.
Finally, on the evening of his victory, Obama’s acceptance speech in Grant Park in Chicago was pitch-perfect.
Next week, however, Obama will speak from a different pulpit. Much of his address, no doubt, will be about the United States and its domestic challenges. But given the present condition of the world—bloody conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, persistent terrorist networks, a conflagration in Gaza, a cooling economy, and a warming planet — we can expect the new president also to address his vision for U.S. foreign policy.
Obama should consider three lessons from history concerning the relationship between presidential rhetoric and U.S. foreign policy.
The first is that good writing enables presidents to win support for their international policies. John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, which focused almost exclusively on foreign policy, set the modern standard. Kennedy had a great deal to prove in that speech, given he had won the election by less than two tenths of 1 percent of the popular vote and was regarded by many, both in the United States and abroad, as being too young and inexperienced to lead the free world in the struggle against communism. His promise to “pay any price” and “bear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty” stiffened Americans’ spines and sent a clear message to the Soviets.
But although foreign-policy speeches should be well written, they should not be overwritten. The strongest inaugural addresses are generally the shortest ones. Often they have a single theme. For FDR’s first, it was his “lines of attack” on the Great Depression; for JFK, the Cold War; for George W. Bush’s second, his freedom agenda. The greatest of them all, Lincoln’s second inaugural address, was a short and profound meditation on slavery and the Civil War, constructed of plain words, elegantly arranged.
The second lesson is that foreign–policy rhetoric must be firmly tethered to foreign–policy reality. The ambition of Bush’s beautifully written second inaugural address—in particular the statement that the United States would “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”—sat awkwardly with the reality of the administration’s policies at that time. By January 2005 it had been apparent for almost a year that the early failures of the Iraq war had undermined the ideologues in the Bush administration and chastened U.S. foreign policy. Washington was already taking a more multilateral approach to the problems posed by the two remaining members of the axis of evil, Iran and North Korea, and working closely with authoritarian states such as Egypt and Libya. The disjunction between the president’s policies and his language did not serve America’s interests.
The final lesson is that U.S. presidents need to address multiple and diverse audiences, including foreigners as well as Americans. The overwhelming majority of Obama’s international audience next week will be sympathetic: In many countries, after all, he was the preferred candidate for president by ratios of 4 and 5 to 1.
The new president should directly address the people of the world, especially those watching from the margins. He should signal that he understands that America is strongest when it is open to the world, and promise that he will be deaf to the siren songs of isolationism and protectionism. He should sign up his long–distance listeners to a new compact: that Washington will work to solve global problems through multilateral means, and that in turn, other capitals will make sure that multilateralism works. If Obama can do all this, then his inaugural address will turn out to be a powerful source of American prestige and power.