Prague-nosis: Excellent

Obama’s Czech speech will help our American image abroad

Imagine walking into a room of expectant dignitaries you have never met to give a speech moderated by hosts known to have been critical of you. A daunting situation, to be sure—unless you are the president of the world’s most high-profile nation. Unless you are Barack Obama.

Precisely above the situation met Obama in the Czech Republic a few weeks ago, which he visited as part of his world tour of U.S. allied countries. The Czech Republic maintains a highly ambiguous relationship with the United States, thanks in large part to the Bush administration’s missile shield plan that would position radar in Czech territory and expose it to backlash from Russia. Obama’s hosts, meanwhile, have been supporters neither of his ascendancy nor his policies. Mirek Topolanek, whose successor as prime minister will be named today, just fired off his last political salvo in the capacity of leader of the Czech Republic’s term as president of the European Union, in which he denounced Obama’s economic policies as “the way to hell.”

Yet, despite all this, 20,000 people gathered in Prague to hear America’s new leader speak this weekend, and by all accounts Obama was a smashing success. His Czech appearance proves once again that he has the charm and tact it takes to work with any country—no matter how much it supports U.S. policies.

During the speech itself, Obama charmed the crowd with an ease that should no longer surprise anyone. There is a reason he was elected president with flying colors, a reason he has a 66-percent approval rating while the party of his opponents, the GOP, polled its lowest approval rating this week in the 25-year period the question has been asked. Obama spoke at length of the Czech Republic’s history and road to independence, flawlessly pronouncing the Czech phrase for “Velvet Revolution,” the movement that ousted Communism from the country in 1989.

Obama’s speech quickly converted thousands in the crowd, and presumably thousands of others who watched or listened to broadcasts, into his latest believers. He has become a global force, reassuring for the future while skillfully appealing to the past. Famed former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who met with Obama afterward, warned him of the risks of becoming so popular as to create impossible expectations. Yet, for now, Obama has exceeded the expectations of yet another foreign nation, leaving even President Vaclav Klaus somewhat overwhelmed in his wake. Klaus told the media the speech was not the “cosmopolitan speech” he had expected, in which Obama would exploit his presence in Prague to make a general message—instead, Klaus praised the talk as “unexpectedly Prague and unexpectedly Czech.”

This is not to say that Obama is simply brownnosing his eastern European colleagues. When Klaus—an outspoken supporter and ally of George W. Bush, standing by his missile shield project against popular opinion—invited the American leader for dinner in Prague Castle, Obama wasn’t afraid to tell him that he had better plans. He knew where his priorities lay; dinner with Michelle at a top restaurant with a view of Prague was evidently a much more productive use of his time than appeasing the self-importance of a fellow president who had backed the wrong horse. (Of course, Obama expressed his refusal in much more delicate terms.)

Thanks to Obama’s successful visit, the Czech Republic now knows the caliber of leader with whom they will be working. But the world should no longer be surprised by Obama’s grace and dignity or his constant, effortless self-awareness. Obama could walk into almost any room of strangers and produce that sort of result. Perhaps the most important message of his speech was this: that the United States is back as a robust political force, and the dynamism of its leader cannot be ignored.

Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Quincy House.