LinkedIn tracking pixel

Obama’s Homage to “Realpolitik”

This article by Benjamin Fricke, IWP Class of 2013, was originally published by the IWP student journal Active Measures.

Freedom is indivisible,
and when one man is enslaved, all are not free,

President John F. Kennedy, Berlin 1963

President Obama’s speech in Berlin this month became to many merely a state visit that marked the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. The President came as a friend, but also an ally who asked for support from the Germans who have managed to become the most powerful country in Europe.

President Kennedy came to Berlin at a time when the world and Germany in particular appeared doomed to be divided for decades to come. Kennedy gave hope to Berliners and the world that the U.S. would stand firm against communism and projected a reunited city of Berlin and the fall of the wall. This objective seemed to many just as illusory as the promises of communism itself, but people desperately hoped it would come true. President Obama commemorated Kennedy’s memorable speech this June that, despite all odds, fulfilled its most hopeful aspirations.

Yet, history provided for an ironic twist to this year’s visit. It was not Obama’s appearance in front of the Brandenburg Gate that is significant for history, but his praise of President Kennedy’s legacy and indirect honoring of President Reagan’s foreign policy towards the Soviet Union. I was stunned by how many references President Obama made towards Reagan without even mentioning his name.  Obama talked about taking more responsibility and tearing down the walls of our time. He further acknowledged that it was the “battle of ideas” that had to be won even today. 

Just as in the 1980s when Reagan asked Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” communism itself was a spreading disease of the mind in many western societies. Ideological challenges will still persist, whether in China or Islamic beliefs. The universal values and morals of sound democracy and freedom prove even more valid in the future, considering the variety of battles we are fighting in our democratic societies.

The President had just come back from Moscow after meeting with Russian President Putin to talk about arms reduction and the Syrian civil war. Both leaders fundamentally disagreed on how to approach these issues. No consensus was reached, and I could not get rid of the uneasy feeling that this reminded me too much of the Cold War itself.

When presidential candidate Obama came to Berlin in 2008, he drew 250,000 people to the Victory Column. I personally attended too; I even skipped class at the University of Leipzig in order to make it to Berlin in time and still had to park on Kurfürstendamm, which was quite a hike.

Yet the atmosphere was special, and one could feel something dramatic was expected to happen.  The overwhelming hope, however, was destined to be disappointed. Germans were almost naïve about the ability of an American President to change the world.

This awesome atmosphere had mostly sobered by 2013, but the hopes are still there. President Obama has matured in office and was trying to tell the German audience, which was this time limited to 4,500 people, that more is expected of them and indirectly that German policy needs to mature as well. 

Reading German news, I could sense some ignorance about deeper implications for German responsibility. The crowd cheered mostly at times when they were told what they wanted to hear, such as the rather awkward moment in the speech when Obama repeated his intention to close the prison in Guantanamo. The Berliner Morgenpost titled in a headline “Obama shrank to the realistic size of a politician.” This quotation underscored the real challenges that we face in our everyday life and the bold actions we need to take to protect our hard earned freedoms and democracy, both in Germany and the United States.

In past decades, Germans became too reliant on American protection and too reluctant to take leadership in Europe. A recent issue of The Economist described Germany as a “reluctant hegemon,” pointing essentially the German’s mental blockade to take leadership. The European states’ crisis has pushed Germany into a more dominant role than her politicians are often willing to take, but they will have to get used to it.

Candidate Obama said during his speech in 2008 that the terrorists of 9/11 plotted in Hamburg but trained in Kandahar and Karachi. This seems to come a surprise to many non-German readers, but the simple solution Germans will often give you is that a strong police will take care of that problem. However, that is an easy excuse to avoid necessary international engagement and use the right tools of statecraft, which clearly includes strategic planning and the use of the Bundeswehr abroad.

Of course, military action is not the only tool of statecraft, but endless slaughter, repression and terrorism can sometimes not be solved by diplomacy alone. The Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s and the deployment of Pershing II rockets to Western Europe forced the Soviets back to the negotiating table. The Germans were given a second chance in history to build a model democracy that must not be tempted to ignore the problems of our times. Every man in the free world in 1963 was a Berliner, and that spirit should be upheld to tear down the walls of our times.

President Obama commemorated this spirit in Berlin and hailed the truth that German politics has yet to live up to and take her appropriate role in the world. One could only hope that this will come about for the sake of the next 50 years.