So I was in London on Saturday, and spent some requisite time wandering around Trafalgar Square in the rain. Like Times Square in NYC, Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, or other such urban centers, Trafalgar square is alive with bustling activity, tourism, and, well, masses of diverse humanity. Moving around the throngs of people on Saturday reminded me of just how much I love being in international cities and particularly these sorts of iconic public spaces.
What struck me on Saturday in Trafalgar square was that it felt less like London than it did some vaguely “world” city. There was a jumbotron set up in the middle of the square that was broadcasting the Olympics from Beijing, while Chinese dancers/acrobats/fireworks were entertaining passersby in other corners of the square. It was a celebration of globalization, world unity, etc, etc…. Was I wrong to wish for a more authentically British experience?
The Trafalgar experience made me think of Barack “I’m a citizen, not a presidential candidate” Obama’s speech in Berlin a few weeks ago. There, in one of Europe’s most politically-charged cities, Obama spoke to the largest crowd of his campaign… 200,000+ Germans. And these Germans just adored Obama; I haven’t seen them this excited about an American since Michael Jackson dangled his baby outside one of their windows (“Germany loves you, Michael!”) back in 2002. Obama’s strangely epic speech in Berlin created a similar mania, leaving the German press in a tizzy, fawning over the senator with headlines like “Berlin’s New Kennedy!”
What on earth is going on here? Is Obama running for president of the world? Last time I checked he was campaigning for the American presidency, not some vaguely apocalyptic “united world” government. Sure, his speech was amazing (they always are), and I’d lie if I said it didn’t give me goosebumps in a good way. But upon reflection the speech and its symbolic position in what is turning into a global presidential race left me rather skeptical and even a bit perturbed.
Yes, the world is globalized; we can’t avoid it and nor should we. It’s neither good nor bad; it just is.
But should nations really be raising up leaders to answer to other nations before their very own? Should our politicians answer to the “world community” and international pressures prior to the mandates of their own electorate? I’m not saying our leaders should be isolationist. Surely the world would be worse off without the outreach of people like Reagan and Churchill to a world community in need.
But Obama is not president yet. He isn’t even a particularly powerful politician. Why are hundreds of thousands of Berliners turning out to cheer him on? Do they know something about him that Americans do not?