The US president's visit to Athens undoubtedly constitutes the most closely followed event of recent days. It is of paramount significance to note that this is the first trip made by any sitting president of the United States to our country, which does not coincide with the involvement of either party in fierce diplomatic or military disputes. During Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visit, in 1959, the predominant matter discussed between him and then-Prime minister Konstantinos Karamanlis was the Cypriot dispute. Similarly, George W. Bush’s visit coincided with tension between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, while the primary item on Bill Clinton’s and Costas Simitis’s agenda in 1999 was the US involvement in Yugoslavia.
During Barack Obama’s final overseas trip as president of the United States, his visit to Greece did not face any diplomatic hindrances. Nevertheless, he found himself faced with a community devastated by the social repercussions of a deep economic crisis. This was the subject of a very thorough analysis during his speech at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center, on November 16. He additionally exhibited noteworthy sympathy for the Greek people, arguing that it is not of current significance to analyze the internal and external factors which lead Greece into its dire economic state. While other leaders from powerful European states, which offer economic support to Greece, maintain an austere stance against Greece, Obama has contrasting views. He acknowledged the huge price the average Greek citizen has paid as a result of the constant imposition of larger and larger austerity measures. Lastly, he also recognized that after six years of such measures and politico-economic pressures, the Greek people ought to see an improvement in daily life, which may only be achieved through economic growth.
Democracy was the principal axis around which the US president’s speech revolved. As is customary in his speeches, he paid great attention to the multitude of historic factors which constituted the basis for the establishment of the democratic Constitution, whose flame shines bright across the entire globe, and cannot be extinguished, as he argued. Specifically, he greatly emphasized the role of democracy in sustaining healthy and viable relations and interactions between states, as well as the nonviolent resolution of disputes that arise among them. He supported the above through a series of references to the various political achievements of the United States of America during his presidency where, through the employment of diplomacy and dialogue, he was able to disarm Iran of its nuclear weaponry, as well as re-establish commercial and diplomatic relations with Cuba. He continued by sharing his belief that democracy consistently brings about political and social stability, in contrast to the inherent volatility and instability of authoritarian regimes, which engage in violence and scaremongering. Nonetheless, he recognized some of the intrinsic flaws of the democratic system, illustrating that a democratic decision may never truly be popular among the entirety of a society. In fact, establishing the system is an even more considerable challenge in America, as it is characterized by racial, religious and cultural diversity. In our experience, as young global citizens, the flaws of democracy are indisputably evident in Greek society, as many politicians have not made the grim, yet necessary, decisions that Greece needs because of fear of the political cost. This effect would not be observed in a society where an authoritarian government employs violent measures; it also constitutes a crucial factor in determining Greece’s path through the years and has shaped its current state. Through Obama’s exposition, it may be considered thoroughly logical to infer that the concept of democracy may be condensed into the following timeless statement of the late Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst system of government – except for all the others.”
Furthermore, President Obama made extensive references to globalization, which has faced much resistance from political movements, equally in both Greece and in the United States. He emphasized the many benefits of the phenomenon, such as the fact that the world is now nearly fully interconnected, through advancing technology. In turn, technology limits unawareness and ignorance, as it drives up the availability of information, while also generating a wave of pessimism, however, as we are now exposed to every single instance of violence and racial injustice. In reality, he argued, we live in the most equitable and prosperous era of mankind’s history. He further supported the idea that the principles of democracy allow for globalization to fully occur, ultimately leading to progress, despite its inherent imperfections. Conversely, authoritarian governments decry and inhibit globalization, which may only bring about stagnancy – and not stability. The aforementioned claim is supported by contemporary examples of surviving authoritarian regimes, such as North Korea, which are a clear indication that a lack of globalization, in combination with national isolation, lead to narrow-minded societies. Lastly, Obama implied that these regimes may ultimately destroy themselves “from the inside out,” as in a world that becomes more and more interconnected at an “accelerating pace,” isolation and xenophobia do not stand on stable ground.
Barack Obama’s impending visit to Berlin exerted a direct influence on the structure of his speech. There was an evident similarity between the themes he addressed and those which the 35th President of the United States John F. Kennedy did during his own visit to West Berlin in 1963. The speech given by Kennedy – whose main theme revolved around the raising of the Berlin Wall by the Soviets – had many common points of reference with Barack Obama's on November 16. Kennedy employed the persuasive mode of pathos – appealing to the audience’s sentimental response – to express his compassion for all Germans who are going through their daily “combats,” while Obama’s speech displayed empathy for Greeks who are struggling for survival in a society that is plagued by the consequences of the crisis. Another notable similarity between the two speeches may be observed in the fashion in which Kennedy refers to the Berlin Wall and the isolation it had caused for the two sides it separated. Likewise, Obama stood firmly against the isolation of peoples – on both a societal and a national scale – pointing at marginalized countries and clearly making an indirect, albeit clear-cut reference to the notorious wall that president-elect Donald Trump had promised during his long-running campaign in the pre-election period. In order to support his argument, the president referred to the solidarity that thousands of Greeks have shown towards the refugees arriving on the islands of the Aegean, specifically referencing the following quote, taken from the description of a Greek woman’s personal experience in the immigration tragedy: “We all live under the same sun; we all fall in love under the same moon; we must help these people.”
Whether or not one agrees with Obama’s policies, his demeanor and charismatic rhetorical abilities are able to impress and captivate even his staunchest opponent. Similarly, we, too, as young members of our society, were touched by his allusion to the youth and the power we possess to change “our Greece” – our country. Through his words, it is apparent that the president’s predominant belief is that the youth holds the capacity to dictate the direction in which its respective society is headed and to put an end to the issues from which it suffers: poverty, inequality, extremism and social prejudice.
Senior Class 2017
American Community Schools (ACS) of Athens