By Nile Gardiner
When John F. Kennedy delivered his “Ich Bin Ein Berliner” speech in front of the Schöneberg Rathaus on June 26, 1963, 450,000 people flocked to hear him. Fifty years later a far more subdued invitation-only crowd of 4,500 showed up to hear Barack Obama speak at the same location in Berlin. As The National Journal noted, “he didn’t come away with much, winning just a smattering of applause from a crowd that was one-hundredth the size of JFK’s,” and far smaller than the 200,000 boisterous Germans who had listened to his 2008 address as a presidential candidate. JFK had a clear message when he came to Berlin a half century ago – the free world must stand up to Communist tyranny. 24 years later, President Reagan stood in the same spot famously calling on the Soviets to “tear down this wall.” Reagan’s speech was a seminal moment that ushered in the downfall of an evil empire, and gave hope to tens of millions of people behind the Iron Curtain. It was a display of strength and conviction by the leader of the free world, sending an unequivocal message of solidarity with those who were fighting for freedom in the face of a monstrous totalitarian ideology.
In stark contrast to that of his presidential predecessors, Barack Obama’s message on Wednesday was pure mush, another clichéd “citizens of the world” polemic with little substance. This was a speech big on platitudes and hopeless idealism, while containing much that was counter-productive for the world’s superpower. Ultimately it was little more than a laundry list of Obama’s favourite liberal pet causes, including cutting nuclear weapons, warning about climate change, putting an end to all wars, shutting Guantanamo, ending global poverty, and backing the European Project. It was a combination of staggering naiveté, the appeasement of America’s enemies and strategic adversaries, and the championing of more big government solutions.
There was little in this speech that advances US interests, or makes the world a safer place. Completely missing from Obama’s address was a call for the West to stand up to the rising threat of Islamist militancy, the defence of Christians facing huge levels of persecution and intimidation in the Middle East, strong condemnation of Iran and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and any criticism of growing authoritarianism in Russia. The president paid lip service to the NATO alliance, which has proved critical in preserving Europe’s security for over 60 years, but made no call for the alliance to be strengthened in the wake of waning support and investment in Europe.
President Obama’s words may well have pleased his German government hosts, content to see a United States whose ambitions as a military power have been significantly clipped since George W. Bush left office in 2009. But Barack Obama underscored again why he is no JFK or Ronald Reagan. In front of the Brandenburg Gate, Obama sounded more like the president of the European Commission than the leader of the free world. It is never a good sign when a US president parrots the language of a Brussels bureaucrat when he is supposed to be a champion of freedom. Obama’s distinctly unimpressive speech in Berlin was another dud from a floundering president whose leadership abroad is just as weak as it is at home.