President Obama's speech in Berlin marked his first time in Germany as President, although he made a significant speech there as a candidate in 2008. It was announced this morning that he would use the occasion to propose a reduction of U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles. And he announced that he would "seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures" as well as reduce the presence of tactical weapons in Europe. At the same time, though, he also addressed many other issues, from civil liberties to the continued fight against terrorism. While we will not know its influence on history or policy for some time, here are some immediate takeaways from his words:
The Brandenburg Gate is a political icon within U.S. foreign policy. As coverage has made clear, President Kennedy gave his famous Ich Bin ein Berliner speech there in 1963. But Foreign Policy also reminds us that, at the same spot, "in 1987, Ronald Reagan famously implored Mikhail Gorbachev to 'tear down this wall'" and "in 1994 … Bill Clinton memorably proclaimed 'Berlin is free.'" This means that the speeches at Brandenburg Gate have marked a significant foreign policy moment in three different administrations. And Obama has chosen to speak there exactly one week before the 50-year anniversary of that first speech. The symbolism is clear. By speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, Obama wanted this speech to become a significant part of his foreign policy goals for the next three years and, eventually, his presidential legacy.
The legacy of the Cold War permeated the President’s words. Even during his introductory comments, he had already evoked the memory of the Berlin Wall in his statement that “no wall can stand against the yearning of justice, the yearnings for freedom, the yearnings for peace that burns in the human heart.” Cold War history defined the content of Obama’s speech as much as nuclear weapons did. The metaphor of the wall became the grounds upon which he addressed major global issues and his evocation of ideological ideals. Despite its intention to announce future policy, the Berlin Speech remained preoccupied with history and dominated by the relationship between history and current events.
The importance of history and the symbolism of location implicitly revealed a significant intention of the speech. Just like his counterterrorism speech at the National Defense University, Obama sought to shape his historical legacy through this speech. For all of its emphasis on the past, it attempted to articulate a vision that would shape judgements of Obama in the future. That would explain his emphasis on “peace with justice,” a phrase that became the overriding theme of the speech. He seemed to discuss that phrase even more than he discussed nuclear weapons. It may be the initial articulations of what Obama wants to define as his significant foreign policy doctrine, whether or not that actually becomes the case.
In 1983, college senior Barack Obama wrote an article that advocated for an end to nuclear weapons. During the 2008 campaign, he claimed that nuclear terrorism is “the gravest danger we face” and advocated for the reduction of nuclear stockpiles. As President, he pushed for the ratification of the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia and signed into law in early 2011. Yet nuclear weapons had fallen by the wayside in the past three years and did not feature it prominently during his 2012 campaign. The Berlin Speech signaled a resurgence of the goals that Obama had previously advocated throughout his lifetime. The content of the speech, the hope to move “beyond the posturing of the Cold War,” was much closer to Obama the 2008 candidate and his proclamation of bold intentions during his first year in office. In this way, he may try to establish a turning point for his second term.
With no more troops in Iraq and the transference of power to local security forces in Afghanistan, Obama is attempting to end the debacles of the previous decade. US foreign policy under Obama is inherently transitional between the legacy of Bush policies and the attempted establishment of Obama’s. This explains how Obama can both try to act as a reformer while gaining criticism for continuing the policies of his predecessor, how he can try to meet with Xi Jinping for his pivot to Asia while arming Syrian rebels and defending Bush-era surveillance policies. The Berlin Speech may just mark the turning point at which US foreign policy actually starts to become Obama’s foreign policy.
However, the current political context may be just as important to the Berlin Speech as Obama’s future goals. Ensnared by the privacy scandals at home and the trouble with Syria abroad, Obama used this moment as an ideal opportunity to change the message and introduce policies that would gain favor with both liberals at home and internationals abroad who have become disenchanted by the recent PRISM revelations. When Obama spoke as a candidate in 2008, he drew a crowd of 200,000 people. Although he still remains incredibly popular within Germany (polling at 88% confidence), the reaction this time was much more subdued. The Washington Post demonstrated the differences very effectively by comparing the two covers of Der Spiegel before his arrival. The consensus in Europe, and in the United States as well, is that the honeymoon ended a long time ago. While sympathies still remain with Obama, people are now more realistic about expectations and possibilities for the U.S. president. The Berlin Speech, with its ideological rhetoric and its focus on the future, may provide an attempt to rekindle the flame at a particularly rocky point in the relationship with Obama both at home and abroad.
Despite all of Obama's intentions with this speech, both to distract from the shortcomings of contemporary policies and shape the nature of his legacy, he could not escape the pressing questions raised by counterterrorism policies. Even if the present moment stands as a point of transition, it has become clear that the counterterrorism policies of his first term will always define his presidency to a certain extent. The last of his paragraphs addressed some of these most significant issues, from the failure to close Guantanamo Bay to the current "balance," in his words, between "the pursuit of security" and the "protection of privacy." Just like his previous statements within the past few weeks, Obama defended his administration's actions while rhetorically defending individual liberties and the other ideals through which he criticized his predecessor. It was an admirable balancing act that demonstrated his rhetorical capabilities. But it also showed that while Obama may try to implement a new vision, "peace with justice," he may not be able to overcome his previous actions. In future years, this separation may come to define the distinction between Obama as an orator and Obama as a president.