Originally an expression of Prussian power, and later a site for extravagant Nazi military parades, the Gate went on to become a symbol of peace and progress. Last week, President Obama hoped to continue that reputation as he addressed Berliners and sought to further strengthen ties with longtime rival Russia.
In the past, the Gate played host to the triumphal entry of Napoleon in 1806, and was later used by Kaiser Wilhelm II and Hitler. Few landmarks are associated with such military solidarity and prowess, spanning the history of the gradual strengthening of the Prussian Empire and later, Germany.
Yet the reputation of this site took an about-face starting in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy made a famous speech nearby that solidified his popularity both at home and abroad. His memorable “Ich bin ein Berliner” comment remains an iconic moment in the strengthening of America’s ties with the divided German city at the height of the Cold War. Berliners were endeared to Kennedy, whether for his attempt to forge ties with the German people, or simply due to the unfortunate inclusion of the indefinite article “ein”, which, for many Germans, turned his phrase into, “I am a jelly doughnut.”
In later years, the Gate was the famous scene of Ronald Reagan’s “Tear Down This Wall!” address in 1987, and Bill Clinton’s 1994 announcement that “Berlin is Free!” The site that had once represented fascist and imperialistic power, and later division of the Western and Eastern world, eventually became the physical representation of peace, progress and hope.
It is no surprise then that President Obama chose this site to address the people of Berlin. And just as Kennedy and Reagan sent loud and clear messages to the Soviet Union, Obama is making known his desire to take forward steps with Russia.
The speech largely involves a new plan to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons, although on a broader scale Obama is clearly seeking to build bridges with its Eastern counterpart. Tensions between the U.S. and Russia have persisted for years, although to a heightened degree under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The eccentric leader, who this week staunchly denied stealing Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl ring, has made no secret of his desire to maintain a distance between the two countries, and during his two terms in office diplomatic progress has been stalled on a number of occasions.
As two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is critical for promoting peace and security around the world. Both are also members of the G8, which met this week in Northern Ireland to discuss prominent global issues.
Obama’s intent to cooperate with Russia over nuclear reduction comes at a tense time for the two countries. They have consistently disagreed over how to address Syria’s civil war, with Obama offering financial and military support to the rebels, while Putin insists on supporting his longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After lengthy discussions at the recent G8 meeting, the two, along with other members of the group, managed to reach a consensus that calls for immediate peace talks between the warring sides in Syria, although specifics of the arrangement remain to be decided.
It is yet clear whether turning attention to nuclear weapons is ill-timed or a strategic play. With a recent poll showing Obama’s approval rating dipping below 49 percent, this may be an attempt to accomplish a foreign policy goal set during his first term, considering his failure to address a number of other issues he made promises about several years back. Reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles is long overdue, yet such a move has significant opposition among Republicans and should Obama be replaced with a Republican at the next election, progress on nuclear reduction may hit a roadblock.
Currently, both the United States and Russia have nuclear weapons numbering in the thousands. No other country has more than around 300, and the continued existence of such large and unnecessary numbers only increases the risk of heightened tension, not to mention the possibility of misplaced or stolen weapons.
Hopefully, the disagreement over Syria and the long history of diplomatic tension between the U.S. and Russia will not prevent Obama’s speech from becoming another historic moment at the Brandenburg Gate. Obama needs a little success right now, but more importantly, the world needs to see something positive emerge from the two global powers.