Speaking at the Brandenburg Gate, a historic backdrop for U.S. presidents, Obama said the dissolution of the Soviet Union has brought “a sense that the great challenges have somehow passed.”
Arguing against that notion, he cited climate change, which he called “the global threat of our time,” international terrorism, poverty and intolerance as challenges that only collective action by the United States and its European allies can solve.
“People often come together in places like this to remember history, not to make it,” Obama told an audience of 4,500 invited Germans, who filled Pariser Platz on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate. “But I come here today, Berlin, to say complacency is not the character of great nations. Today’s threats are not as stark as they were half a century ago. But the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity, that struggle goes on.”
Unlike his call for a “new beginning ” with the Muslim world in a speech in Cairo soon after he became president, Obama’s remarks in Berlin were confined to safe political ground. They also exposed the gulf between his ambitious rhetoric and the more modest reality of his foreign policy, which has been less bold in some cases than what he demanded here.
Obama’s half-hour address received a polite, if far from electric, response from the sweltering crowd, who during a festival-like pre-speech program were treated to live violin renditions of music by Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Beethoven.
The last U.S. president to speak at the Brandenburg Gate was Bill Clinton, who in 1994 addressed Berliners from the gate’s east side. In 1987, President Ronald Reagan chose the setting of the gate, then on the far side of the Berlin Wall, to call on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Obama’s address, though, was written to mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s message of solidarity to Berliners, delivered at another site along the wall just two years after it was built.
For Obama, the speech was also a return to a venue that helped define his 2008 candidacy and the hope it represented for a new style of American leadership after the George W. Bush administration, which saw Europe as more of an obstacle than an ally on national security challenges after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In 2008, Obama spoke to an estimated crowd of 200,000 people in Tiergarten Park, not far from the Brandenburg Gate. Still highly popular here, Obama nonetheless has seen his star power fade across a once-worshipful Europe.