It was quite a lot of fun for me to watch all the fanfare Friday and Saturday with Obama in Strasbourg, France to celebrate the 60th anniversary of NATO (although, I am curious why it wasn’t in Brussels, but whatever). You see, from 1998-1999, I was a study abroad student in Strasbourg, France and really had the time of my life there interning at the Council of Europe, frequenting my favorite pub, The Irish Times, and feeling the international warmth as the various patisserie owners grew familiar enough with me to correct my French. (J’adore du pain au chocolate!). Sure, the was a cold, unfriendliness in Strasbourg that was a bit difficult to get used to as a Texan, but as a 20/21 year-old, I was able to adapt quite easily.
Mind you, as a college student, I had always thought of Western Europe as the epicenter of international diplomacy. I’d been learning about NATO, the UN (whose subsidiary organizations dot the continent), the WTO, the IMF, the European Union, the Council of Europe, etc., etc. It wasn’t until I’d hired on to an international geopolitical company in the Asian department that I truly grasped how the influential tide had shifted east over the last half of the 20th century and Asia was claiming a prominent position on the world stage. Had I known that, I might have instead headed for Tokyo, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur or some other burgeoning hub. Beijing probably would have always been out of the question because of my penchant for refusing to watch my language, but Hong Kong might have been a good option.
In any case, displays of Obama’s town hall and meeting with foreign leaders and all the political commentary that followed sent me back nine short years ago, causing me to relive many moments during my educational (and not-so-educational) pursuits across the pond.
When Chris Matthews on Hardball asked Christopher Hitchens and Tina Brown what Great Britain wanted from the U.S., they said quite unanimously that the U.K. wanted the U.S. to lead, but then wanted to grumble about it afterward because, after all, grumbling is the official pastime of the U.K. This reminded me of my class visit to NATO Nov. ’98. Clinton was about to start dropping bombs in Bosnia. The U.S. had (and still does) by far the largest contingent of foreign service workers in NATO and the one thing I remember our officer telling us (aside from a couple stories about Monica Lewinsky’s visit earlier), was that none of the NATO partners would act or make a decision until the U.S. did and only then conclude their appropriate course.
As hard as U.S. leaders’ decisions may be – and there are many of them, all of the time – and though they might be made after lengthy deliberations with multiple parties, the U.S. always has to go first. Washington must always hang its neck out and put its cahones on the line before any other major actor. It’s a difficult and tenuous position to be the leader, though one we wouldn’t relinquish voluntarily for all the pains au chocolate in all the world. I remember thinking, and this seems to apply today, that Europe would do well to remember, amidst their criticism, that the harder calls are ours. They might not be so quick with the denunciations if the shoe were on the other foot. Although, we did deserve the international smackdowns we received for electing Bush and caving so easily as he ran roughshod over the Constitutions and Geneva Conventions.
But the citizens of the U.S. should be enormously proud that it was that specific man, Obama, we were sending to Europe. More humble than your average typical 60 year-old white American politician, Obama is willing to listen and consider and sympathize while still having the spine to call out those who need the attention (European anti-American sentiment, Afghanistan’s potential legalization of rape).
When I was a student in Europe and people would ask me where I was from, I’d say Texas. Everyone knows of Texas (apparently, the TV show Dallas used to be huge over there) and I could easily sidestep the majority of anti-American debates (and sexual invitations) that would inevitably arise when everyone realized I was an americaine. Being in Europe while all the adulterous members of the U.S. Senate were impeaching the adulterous U.S. president and,
later, during the Columbine massacre wasn’t exactly a proud moment. But, at least I could tell them I was from Texas and we could have the requisite fun conversation that, no, I do not ride horses to school, and, yes, U.T. is where that crazy guy shot a bunch of people from the clock tower in the 60’s. The last eight years of Bush, however, ruined that easy segue. At least Obama will restore study abroad students’ open pride in the U.S. once more. Sure, sometimes I grew a little frustrated (and drunk) and told a couple rude Frenchies, “Fuck you, I’m from Texas!” Now we can say, “Screw off, I vote for Obama!” And that’s important.