Summoning the harsh history of this once-divided city, President Barack Obama on Wednesday cautioned the U.S. and Europe against “complacency” brought on by peace, pledging to cut America’s deployed nuclear weapons by one-third if Cold War foe Russia does the same.
The president also declared that his far-reaching surveillance programs had saved lives on both sides of the Atlantic, as he sought to defend the controversial data-mining to skeptical Europeans.
Speaking against the soaring backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate, Obama said that “bold reductions” to the U.S. and Russian nuclear forces were needed to move the two powers away from the war posture that continues to seed mistrust between their governments.
“We may not live in fear of nuclear annihilation, but as long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe,” Obama said as he closed a three-day visit to Europe, his first trip to the continent since winning re-election.
Obama is grappling with both domestic disputes and foreign policy challenges that have distracted from his second-term agenda. Two matters — war in Syria and the U.S. government’s domestic surveillance program — trailed Obama in Germany, as well as during the Group of 8 summit in Northern Ireland earlier this week.
Privacy-protective Germany was particularly eager for answers about the sweeping programs run by the National Security Agency. Chancellor Angela Merkel used a news conference with Obama Wednesday to appeal for “due diligence” in evaluating the privacy concerns, though she avoided a direct public confrontation with the president.
“There needs to be proportionality,” she said of the U.S. programs. “This is going to be an ongoing battle.”
Obama offered a lengthy defense of the court-approved surveillance of internet and phone records, describing it as a targeted effort that has “saved lives.”
“We know of at least 50 threats that have been averted because of this information, not just in the United States but in some cases threats here in Germany,” he said.
The centerpiece of the president’s visit was the afternoon speech at the Brandenburg Gate, where the Berlin Wall once stood, marking divisions between East and West Germany. Obama, standing behind a pane of bulletproof glass, spoke from the gate’s East front, a location that would have been inaccessible to an American president in an earlier era.
The president’s address drew inevitable comparisons to John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner) speech exactly 50 years ago, as well as Obama’s own thunderous welcome when he arrived in the city as a presidential candidate in 2008. More than 200,000 people filled the streets near Berlin’s Victory Column for that address, a reflection of Europe’s high hopes for the rising American political figure.
Now in his fifth year as president, Obama remains popular in Europe. But the crowd that gathered to hear him speak Wednesday was far smaller and less exuberant than it was in 2008 — just 4,500 people wilting in the sun on an unseasonably warm June day.
Obama took off his suit jacket as he opened his remarks, telling the crowd, “We can be a little more informal among friends.” Still, sweat beaded on his face as he read off a paper copy of his text because of problems with the teleprompter he normally relies on.