In a speech at the Brandenburg Gate that instantly invited comparisons with visits to the same spot by some of his predecessors, President Barack Obama sought to make a historic imprint of his own, pledging to forge a new pact with Russia to further cut nuclear arsenals and to step up the fight against global warming.
President Obama, behind a screen of bullet-proof glass and perspiring under a hot sun, invoked Europe’s difficult past when it was divided by the wall that once bisected Berlin and the plaza where he stood, to insist that serious, if less obvious, global challenges remained.
“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,” Mr Obama intoned, with flights of rhetoric that held echoes of his visit to the nearby Tiergarten in 2008 when he was first running for president.
“I come here to this city of hope because the test of our time demands the same fighting spirit that defined Berlin a half-century ago.
“Peace with justice means refusing to condemn our children to a harsher, less hospitable planet,” he said of global warming, saying it threatened to bring famine, vanishing coastlines and population displacements.
“This is the future we must avert,” he said. “This is the global threat of our time.” Shortly after his return to Washington, Mr Obama is set to unveil measures targeting emissions from US power stations.
More sweeping, however, was the President’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons. “Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be,” he said, indicating that his administration will cut its number of strategic nuclear warheads by a third if Russia does the same.
At home, conservatives accused him of appeasing Russia while arms reduction advocates called him timid. In Berlin, the reception was more polite than rapturous. “I am a bit disappointed by Obama, although anyone is better than Bush,” said Antje Krause, 24, a sociology student who was among the 200,000 at the Tiergarten five years ago. “Back then he promised so much, but so far he hasn’t delivered,” she added.
Visiting Berlin almost exactly 50 years after John F Kennedy’s famous Cold War mission to the city, the last thing any successor US president was going to say was “Ich bin ein Berliner”. But Mr Obama did his best to befriend the German capital’s citizens all the same. But whereas in 1963 a million came out to greet Kennedy, only 6,000 hand-picked German and American guests were allowed to stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate to welcome the President.
Draconian security measures, including sealed manhole covers and police sharpshooters on every surrounding rooftop, kept a larger public away. But Mr Obama broke the ice – or rather the 33C heat – by declaring: “I am going to take my jacket off. I think that among friends we can be informal.”
Echoing Ronald Reagan, who in 1987 stood on the western side of the Brandenburg Gate and urged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall, Mr Obama chose the eastern side to launch his nuclear disarmament initiative in the direction of Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
It was a gesture clearly designed to please German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition. Back in 2009 it pledged to lobby Nato and Washington to remove the remaining 20 or so US nuclear warheads still left on German soil. Late last year Nato announced plans not only to keep the weapons in Germany, but to modernise them.
“This is a modest goal to achieve, and he could have gone further,” Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council that advocates nuclear non-proliferation, said of the one-third proposal.
But Republicans on Capitol Hill expressed resistance to any such initiative, which Mr Obama could pursue without congressional involvement in the framework of the existing New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
The President “seems only concerned with winning the approval of nations like Russia, who will applaud a weakened United States”, Representative Michael Turner, a Republican from Ohio, lamented.
Obama meets his half-sister Auma in Berlin
Despite his packed Berlin agenda, the US President managed to fit in a spot of family business and held a brief meeting with Auma Obama, his 53-year-old half-sister.
Auma Obama, who visited Berlin’s Holocaust memorial with the US First Lady Michelle Obama and her two daughters, was brought up by her mother in Kenya, while her half-brother was raised by his American mother in Hawaii and Indonesia.
The two did not meet until the man who would become President made contact 30 years ago, after their father, Barack Obama Snr, was killed in a car crash in Kenya in 1982. She visited him in Chicago, and the two have since become friends.
Auma, who lives in Germany and works as the head of a foundation that helps disadvantaged African children, was in Berlin when the Wall came down in 1989. “[Germany] really influenced and impressed me,” she told Stern magazine.