Obama Tries to Rally Europeans


Some people hoped that President Obama’s March speech in Brussels  would produce a concrete move to help resolve the crisis in Ukraine. It didn’t, leading to criticism  that the speech didn’t do much.

One factor was the nature of speeches, which don’t have a direct role to play in the kind of chess game being played out between Russia and the West. Speeches can arouse interest, inspire and mobilise and audience. But using a speech to demand more of allies, as some would have liked, would have given an impression of division.

What he did instead was remind the West of its tradition of enlightenment values, in particular democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

How did he do this?

First, he chose a youth audience to speak to. The young are more receptive to talk of abstract values, as they are unsullied by the real-world compromises that adults have been forced into. Plus, while much of the speech resembled a history lesson, it was really about the future.

Second, he made the speech wide-ranging – but it was carefully held together by a group of sentences that act as a foundation for the whole. This sums up the message:

Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident — that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future.

The next three paragraphs explained why this important. Then, to ram home the message, he put us in the shoes of the Ukrainian people.

We’ve never met these people, but we know them.

A section like this forces the speaker to be explicit about what he or she is saying and why it matters. For the audience, these sentences are a conceptual guide, indicating that all other details serve a central point. That keeps them listening.

Third, for a speech covering such a large theme, there’s a need to connect history and abstract ideas to real-world problems:

  • Obama addressed some of his thoughts to Laura, a young woman who had spoken just before – providing a concrete focus for his history lesson.
  •  “It was here in Europe,” he said, “that that a particular set of ideals began to emerge…But those ideals have also been tested.” Then he mentioned visit to a World War I memorial.


Photo: The White House