U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the crowd gathered at Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday morning. Times have changed since John F. Kennedy’s famous Cold War speech in the same location. Obama’s speech focused on reducing the world’s nuclear stockpiles.
Obama’s speech did harken back to the the Cold War era in at least one way—he called for a one-third reduction in U.S. and Russian arsenals. Obama discussed the matter with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday on the sidelines of the Group of Eight (G-8) summit. U.S. Capitol Republicans are likely, however, to resist reductions of U.S. stockpiles.
Obama’s approval rating in Germany is still high, but his reception in Berlin was not as robust as it was in 2008. At that time, Obama permeated Berlin society as an inspirational figure. During Christmas midnight mass at the iconic Cathedral of Berlin in 2008, the only English words of the priest rang out repeatedly—”Yes we can!”
His accent turned the “w” into a “v” as he chanted Obama’s slogan with gusto.
In 2008, Obama was greeted in Berlin by a crowd of about 200,000 people. The gathering Wednesday was estimated at a couple thousand, according to CNN.
Obama began his speech, broadcast on the White House website, jokingly acknowledging the he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel do not look like previous leaders of the United States and Germany respectively. He took off his jacket in the heat of the day, inviting the people in the crowd to likewise make themselves more comfortable, setting an informal and friendly tone.
He praised German philosophers and artists including Immanuel Kant, noting particularly the ideals of freedom.
“It was here that Berliners carved out an island of democracy against all odds,” Obama said as he reflected on the city’s history. “Freedom is possible here in Berlin.”
“When the wall finally came down, it was their dreams that were fulfilled. … It is citizens who choose whether to be defined by a wall or whether to tear it down,” he said. “While I am not the first American president to come to this gate, I am proud to stand on its eastern side to pay tribute to its past.” Kennedy and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan had no choice but to stand on the west side before the wall fell, uniting again the formerly communist east side with the west.
Corrupt dictatorships gave way to democracy, the president said. “Openness won, tolerance won, freedom won … here in Berlin.”
He mentioned that a false sense of peace and complacency may set in with the absence of walls, with the absence of fallout shelters—perhaps foreshadowing the nuclear topic to come later in his speech. “Complacency is not the characteristic of great nations,” he said.
He recalled Kennedy’s speech at Brandenburg Gate, saying: “‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ echoes through the ages … but that’s not all he said.”
Obama quoted another part of Kennedy’s speech: “Look to the day of peace with justice.” Obama held fast to the words of the former president, using “peace with justice” as a thread through the rest of his speech.
Bringing the quest for peace back to the present, he said “So long as nuclear weapons exist we are not truly safe.”
He spoke to the need for tearing down walls of difference, of cultural divide, to truly combat terrorism and injustice. “As long as walls exist in our hearts to separate us … then we’re going to have to work harder to bring those walls of injustice down.” He repeated here Kennedy’s words with emphasis—”Peace with justice.”
Cultural differences exist, but a wish for the dignity and rule of law, a wish for freedom, is universal, said Obama. He said the West has a responsibility to help those in the Middle East and elsewhere striving for these values, striving for “peace with justice.”
“Intolerance breeds injustice,” he added.
He turned to the topic of nuclear weapons. He expressed determination to “move beyond Cold War posturing.” He said he rejects nuclear armament in Iran and North Korea, while promoting peaceful nuclear power. He said the United States will host a summit in 2016 to secure nuclear materials around the world and to ratify a nuclear test ban treaty.
On the point of energy, he said the United States has doubled renewable energy in recent years, but he recognized the need to do more.
Obama quoted an American founding father, James Madison: “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” On this point, he said he is dedicated to closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, a statement met by enthusiastic cheering from crowd. He said the United States must strike a balance in its drone use and other tactics.
He quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Vielen Dank,” he finished.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.