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Cuba visit: Why foreign speeches are a hallmark of Obama’s presidency

Policy shifts

More than any president before him, President Obama has chosen to expound on his worldview largely through big speeches delivered before foreign audiences.

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    President Obama makes a speech to the Cuban people in the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso in Havana, March 22, 2016.
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There’s no getting around the fact that it was a striking setting for a historic speech: President Obama, the first sitting American president to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years, delivering a televised address to the Cuban people from Havana’s Gran Teatro.

Like President Reagan’s iconic speech at the Berlin Wall nearly three decades ago, Mr. Obama’s speech Tuesday was envisioned with maximum drama and impact – and the president’s legacy – in mind.

But Obama’s Havana discourse stands out from the speechmaking of other presidents because it is another – and, as Obama’s presidency draws to a close, perhaps the last – in a line of significant foreign policy speeches that the president has delivered in overseas venues.

More than any president before him, Obama has chosen to expound on his worldview and explain his vision of the foreign policy issues facing him largely through big speeches delivered before foreign audiences: Prague, Czech Republic (nuclear disarmament), Cairo (relations with the Muslim world), Accra, Ghana (democracy and the rule of law), and Oslo (what constitutes just war) – all in 2009.

And now Havana.

After taking a moment to condemn the Brussels attacks and to call on the world to join together “in fighting against the scourge of terrorism,” Obama proceeded with his planned remarks. He called his normalization of relations with Cuba the right thing to do after 50 years of a “failed” policy of isolation toward Cuba. And he challenged the leaders of a communist Cuba to trust the Cuban people with the same freedoms – of expression, political choice, and private entrepreneurship – that have allowed Cuban-Americans to prosper.

“You need not fear the Cuban people,” Obama said, addressing President Raúl Castro. It was a line that faintly harked back to Mr. Reagan’s challenge to the Soviet leader at the time: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Several key reasons explain why this president has relied so heavily on speechmaking in foreign settings to offer his policy vision and to exhort the world to build a better future, foreign policy experts say. They cite influences from Obama’s formation as a professor to his conviction that it is no longer the use of force but the power of persuasion that America must deploy in leading the world.

But perhaps chief among those reasons is Obama’s effectiveness as a speaker. The president, and his advisers, learned quickly that he is adept at speechmaking and commanding a crowd.

“This is a president who has a flair for the dramatic and the big speech, and his team decided early on that this is what he is good at,” says Peter Feaver, who served as a strategic planning adviser on President George W. Bush’s national security staff and is now a professor of political science at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “This is their go-to method for this president.”

Even before Obama became president, Professor Feaver says, Obama’s advisers saw his effectiveness with speeches. He cites the Jeremiah Wright case and the controversy over candidate Obama’s relationship with the controversial Chicago pastor, which Obama addressed with a speech titled “A More Perfect Union.”

“He cauterized the wound with a big speech on race,” Feaver says.

Others point to Obama’s 2008 speech adjacent to Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in which the still-candidate wowed a huge and mostly young crowd with his vision of hope for the world.

‘There needs to be follow-up’

The major problem that critics see in what they dismissively consider Obama’s foreign-policy-by-speech is that in their view it has lacked follow-through.

“I’m all in favor of giving a ringing speech. Clearly it would be highly desirable for the Cuban people to hear a rousing discourse on the virtues of freedom and human rights and the rule of law,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington. “But there needs to be follow-up, and the world has long since learned that this president doesn’t do that.”

Obama’s unenforced “red line” over Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons is perhaps the best example of a failure to back up words with action, he says. Professor Lieber – author of the forthcoming “Retreat and Its Consequences,” a critique of the Obama foreign policy – says Obama’s speeches have been overshadowed by the same weakness.

“Speeches are very important, but they ultimately mean very little if they stop there,” he says. “This president never learned what others did,” he adds, “that power without diplomacy is blind, but diplomacy without power is impotent.”

Presidents have delivered memorable speeches in foreign places in the past. Aside from Reagan’s “tear down this wall,” President Kennedy is remembered for declaring “Ich bin ein Berliner,” or “I am a Berliner,” in West Berlin in 1963. Those words are recalled decades later, experts say, because they captured a historical moment and expressed people’s aspirations in a few short words.

For some experts – among them some who criticized Obama’s trip to Cuba as premature – the Havana speech did at least offer the opportunity to survive the test of time if Obama made it a clarion call for free elections, freedom of expression, and freedom for all of Cuba’s political prisoners.

“The trip could be salvaged – if Obama had a ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ moment,” said the Council on Foreign Relations’ Elliott Abrams in a post on the CFR website in February. Mr. Abrams served as Mr. Bush’s global democracy adviser.

A different kind of speech?

But others say the Havana speech should not be judged by what it promised to do because it was something different – essentially, a president taking stock of a defining policy shift.

“Havana is not an aspirational speech. It’s marking something that has happened, a significant change in policy that he has presided over,” says Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst and a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “That’s very different from the aspirational speeches” of Prague or Cairo, he says, or what he calls the “extraordinary Oslo speech” in which Obama laid out his view of when war is “just” as he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

As important as presidential speeches can be, experience shows they rarely influence history or lead to dramatic change, says Dr. Miller, who has longtime experience in both Democratic and Republican administrations.

“There’s no question that Obama is a powerful rhetorician, but the problem with powerful rhetoric is that it rarely persuades – something that even the masters, Reagan and Clinton, found out,” he says. “People just don’t do things based on speeches.”

It may very well be that Obama knows this. Instead, he may have seen the Havana speech as his opportunity to place the other bookend on a foreign policy fashioned with his belief in the power of engaging with America’s adversaries.

Seven years after he opened his presidency by pledging to Iran and others that “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,” Obama told his Havana audience that he’s “here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”

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