July 25, 2008

Obama’s Plea to Bridge the Divide Between Europe and America

By Anne Penketh

Obama in Berlin

Barack Obama brought his message of hope to Europe last night, pledging to heal the wounds inflicted by the Bush era, and promising renewed transatlantic co-operation.

In a speech to tens of thousands of Germans and other Europeans gathered at the foot of Berlin's soaring Victory Column, the Democrat spoke as a citizen, not a presidential candidate. He invoked the spirit of the Berlin airlift exactly 60 years ago as an example of a time when the US and the West stood with the beleaguered people of Berlin cut off by the communist blockade. "People of the world look at Berlin," he said, constantly interrupted by cheers and applause from his mainly young audience. "People of Berlin, people of the world, this is our moment, this our time."

The airlift had been a show of solidarity in which Western pilots had won over the "hearts and minds", he said. "Now the world will watch what we do with this moment," he went on, as he called for a true partnership.

There could be unity on issues ranging from lifting a child out of poverty in Bangladesh to helping dissidents in Burma, bloggers in Iran and voters in Zimbabwe. The crowds went wild. They had walked, cycled or jogged to the Tiergarten Park to hear Mr Obama deliver his speech as the sun set behind the Golden Angel atop the column but the speech was long on ideals and rhetoric and short on detail. He won more applause as he outlined his vision of Middle East peace, a world without nuclear weapons, tackling global warming and the defeat of terrorism. He had been expected to deliver a "tough love" message to the Europeans at a time when Germany, his host, is currently under pressure to send more troops to Afghanistan. The closest he came to that was talk of burden sharing and joint sacrifice.

The address was the centrepiece of a gruelling international tour that has taken him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian city of Ramallah. In a revealing moment on Wednesday in Israel, he confessed to the right-wing opposition leader that he was so tired that he could fall asleep "standing up".

The 46-year old is popular in Europe because of his youth, vitality and agenda for change. Opinion polls in Germany show 75 per cent of the population is willing him to win against John McCain in November, whose aides now refer sardonically to Mr Obama as "The One."

He was treading in the footsteps of former American presidents, such as John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who used the symbolism of the once-divided German capital to deliver historic messages.

Asked by reporters during his flight to Berlin about parallels with the speeches by Mr Kennedy, who declared "Ich bin ein Berliner" and Mr Reagan, who urged President Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down the wall", Mr Obama played down the historic comparisons. "They were presidents. I am a citizen." He also pointed out his mastery of German was "not real good".

But he said Berlin had been chosen for his keynote speech because of its success, in the years following the post-Second World War effort, in uniting the European continent.

Mr Obama said he did not consider yesterday's event as a political rally, although everyone was aware his real audience yesterday was across the Atlantic. He said he wanted to communicate to both sides of the Atlantic "the enormous potential of us restoring a sense of coming together."

In the speech, that was expressed as an opportunity to "remake the world".

Mr Obama's team had been concerned about the impact back home of the images of tens of thousands of ecstatic Germans who - with the French - had been derided by the Bush administration as part of an "axis of weasels".

Mr Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, is due in Paris today before he flies to London to wrap up his trip by having talks with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron - in that order. President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose predecessor Jacques Chirac had tense relations with President George Bush, has taken pains to mend fences with the US administration.

British officials deny being miffed at Mr Obama's decision to deliver his grandstanding speech in Berlin rather than London. But for the Germans the choice of Berlin was an obvious necessity.

"British foreign policy has veered from a hyper-presence to almost a non-presence," said Constanze Stelzenmller of the German Marshall Fund, a Berlin think-tank. "Britain has disappeared from Europe and the transatlantic relationship, except on issues close to Brown's heart such as Africa and poverty. "

However, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen as Europe's leading stateswoman, with a record of commitment to Europe and has been Forbes magazine's "most powerful woman in the world" for the past two years.

Last night there was little doubt what the crowds thought of Mr Obama. He was greeted like a rock star in Berlin, although he did not need the warm-up group that played for the delirious fans.

When it was over, the crowds were still chanting "Obama Obama" as if they expected an encore.

US presidents Berlin moments


Date 1963

Crowd size 120,000

Location Rathaus Schneberg

Catchphrase "Ich bin ein Berliner"


Date 1987

Crowd size 20,000

Location The Brandenburg Gate

Catchphrase "Tear down this wall"


Date 2008

Location Tiergarten's Victory Column

Crowd Size Estimates stand at 200,000

Catchphrase "Remaking the world"

Originally published by By Anne Penketh in Berlin.

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.