2011 in Review: the year’s important speeches

By Chris McCarthy

Even without the long lens of historical perspective, 2011 will be known, in the sporting vernacular of our transatlantic ally, as a game-changer. How the game has changed remains unclear but events this year in Europe and the Arab world will define these regions, and the broader geopolitical picture, for decades, potentially generations.

Despite these epochal events 2011 will not be remembered as a vintage year for speeches – great events commonly provide the space for great speeches. That is possibly because the most important voice this year, as Time Magazine recognised with its ‘Person of the Year’ award, belonged to the protestor, whether they be in Tunisia, Libya, Russia, on Wall Street or outside St. Paul’s. Nevertheless, there were several memorable, if not seminal orations this year. Here then, is a collection of some of 2011’s most important speeches:In a series of addresses at the beginning of the year, President Hosni Mubarak spectacularly misjudged the overwhelming consensus of the Egyptian people demanding he leave. Convinced that the promise of political, economic, and social reforms would be enough to satisfy the protestors, Mubarak refused to accept that it was his nearly 30-year reign that had become the unacceptable element in Egyptian life. In one particularly notable address, as hundreds of thousands gathered on the streets of Cairo chanting for Mubarak to go, the President, bizarrely, said he sympathised with their pain but refused to bow to foreign dictates for him to leave. It was a clear indication of a leader who has lost touch with his citizens and it was a pattern we would see repeated across the Arab World.

Following in Mubarak’s footsteps, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad first promised political and economic reforms in response to popular unrest, before growing increasingly defiant and blaming the violence on a small group of “saboteurs”. In an interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters in early December, Assad was confident that his position remained tenable and that the state’s response to activity on the streets, excluding the occasional “mistake”, was in-keeping with what any other nations, including the US, would have done. The tone of defiance was familiar to what we heard from Mubarak in Egypt; it’s not yet clear whether Assad has reached a similar, unsalvageable tipping point.

Staying with the region, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly in September to request recognition of a Palestinian state. The time had come, he urged, after decades of displacement, colonial occupation and “ceaseless suffering”, for his “courageous and proud people” to  “live like other peoples of the earth, free in a sovereign and independent homeland.” Never the most charismatic or enthralling speaker, Abbas was given a hero’s welcome in the West Bank after an impassioned address that was warmly received within the Assembly.

Moving west where the overwhelming theme of 2011 was a leadership deficit rather than revolutionary unrest – although the sparks we have seen so far in countries like Greece might yet be the precursor to larger fires. Perhaps the single greatest dereliction of responsibility came when Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced a surprise referendum on an EU debt rescue package for Greece that had been announced just a few days before. Sparking sharp falls on the markets, Papandreou argued that the referendum was the best measure to secure “a clear mandate” for the austerity measures that were attached to the latest tranche of bailout money. It spoke volumes about the lack of coordination and unity among Europe’s leaders.

Just weeks before Chancellor Angela Merkel had made her pitch to the German parliament, the Bundestag, to endorse the larger rescue fund for Greece. Her address that day was replete with pledges, promises and assurances that Germany would not let the Euro fail; the evaporating credibility of her words – and those from many other Eurozone leaders – illustrated how inconsequential and meaningless a speech can be when not supported by the necessary actions.

Moving still further west to continental Europe’s supposedly reluctant neighbour where the agenda was again dominated by economic concerns. In November Chancellor George Osborne delivered the government’s Autumn Statement, a sombre, depressing speech that painted a realistically grim picture of Britain’s economic situation. It obviously wasn’t the address the Chancellor was hoping to give when the government committed to eliminating the budget deficit by the next election but it was refreshing for its honesty.

Earlier in the year, when our politicians still had the opportunity to talk about something other than the economy, Prime Minister David Cameron waded into the debate on domestic radicalisation. The doctrine of “state multiculturalism”, where different cultures have been encouraged to live separate lives, had failed argued the Prime Minister. The UK needed both a stronger national identity and a “lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years” if the country was to prevent people turning to extremist creeds; the idea of “muscular liberalism” had (re)-entered the British political lexicon.

Staying on the theme of Britain’s security, we were given an unusual glimpse into the government’s more clandestine business when Foreign Secretary William Hague gave the most open account to date of the ongoing work of our intelligence agencies. Effusive in his praise for the integrity, skill, and professionalism of members of SIS, GCHQ, and MI5, we were given a tantalising peak behind a curtain that won’t be opened any further for decades, if at all.

Moving further west one last time where President Obama announced in May the elimination of one of the world’s most dangerous security threats, Osama Bin Laden. In-keeping with his narrative oratorical style, Obama described a story that started on a clear September day in 2001 and culminated with a daring and bold raid on a compound deep in Pakistan territory. It was a cathartic, unifying moment for millions of Americans.

In a less trumpeted, but equally significant speech, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton addressed the Asia Society at the beginning of the year to announce a shift in US policy in Afghanistan: the American government would be prepared to give its full support to “reconciliation” with the armed opposition, namely a political settlement with the Taliban. She recognised such a policy sounded distasteful, unimaginable even, but it was necessary for a lasting settlement: “Diplomacy would be easy if we only had to talk to our friends. But that is not how one makes peace.”

And there we have a sample of some of this year’s most noteworthy speeches; a year where the pace, scale, and significance of events dwarfed any address or oration; a year where the most important voice belonged the millions across the globe prepared to speak out against injustice, violence, and greed.


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