President Barack Obama stood before the Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday and tried to make some history.
In a speech that referenced a band of doomed protesters in East Germany, Immanuel Kant, and John F. Kennedy, Obama announced that he intends to cut America’s nuclear arsenal by up to a third in pursuit of "peace with justice." The headlines from today’s address will undoubtedly focus on this proposal, and whether the speech goes down as one for the history books will likely depend on Russia’s willingness to shrink its nuclear stockpiles in tandem with the United States.
But the president’s call for nuclear reductions was confined to a mere four paragraphs in an address that ran just over 30 minutes. The speech’s real centerpiece was the idealist in Obama.
The president didn’t exactly have an "ich bin ein Berliner" moment, but that isn’t really Obama’s style anyway. (Try to name a single memorable quote from an Obama speech. Really, I dare you.) If you want to understand how Obama sees America’s role in the world today, the speech was highly instructive, and a window into the ideals that Obama aspires to — even if he doesn’t always meet them.
Here’s a thematic guide to today’s speech.
Obama doesn’t believe history is dead
And yet, more than two decades after that triumph, we must acknowledge that there can, at times, be a complacency among our Western democracies. Today, people often come together in places like this to remember history — not to make it. After all, we face no concrete walls, no barbed wire. There are no tanks poised across a border. There are no visits to fallout shelters. And so sometimes there can be a sense that the great challenges have somehow passed. And that brings with it a temptation to turn inward — to think of our own pursuits, and not the sweep of history; to believe that we’ve settled history’s accounts, that we can simply enjoy the fruits won by our forebears.
What is "peace with justice," you ask?
Peace with justice means free enterprise that unleashes the talents and creativity that reside in each of us; in other models, direct economic growth from the top down or relies solely on the resources extracted from the earth. But we believe that real prosperity comes from our most precious resource — our people. And that’s why we choose to invest in education, and science and research.
Peace with justice means extending a hand to those who reach for freedom, wherever they live. Different peoples and cultures will follow their own path, but we must reject the lie that those who live in distant places don’t yearn for freedom and self-determination just like we do; that they don’t somehow yearn for dignity and rule of law just like we do. We cannot dictate the pace of change in places like the Arab world, but we must reject the excuse that we can do nothing to support it.
Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons — no matter how distant that dream may be. And so, as President, I’ve strengthened our efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and reduced the number and role of America’s nuclear weapons. Because of the New START Treaty, we’re on track to cut American and Russian deployed nuclear warheads to their lowest levels since the 1950s.
Peace with justice means refusing to condemn our children to a harsher, less hospitable planet. The effort to slow climate change requires bold action. And on this, Germany and Europe have led.
Peace with justice means meeting our moral obligations. And we have a moral obligation and a profound interest in helping lift the impoverished corners of the world. By promoting growth so we spare a child born today a lifetime of extreme poverty. By investing in agriculture, so we aren’t just sending food, but also teaching farmers to grow food. By strengthening public health, so we’re not just sending medicine, but training doctors and nurses who will help end the outrage of children dying from preventable diseases. Making sure that we do everything we can to realize the promise — an achievable promise — of the first AIDS-free generation. That is something that is possible if we feel a sufficient sense of urgency.
Obama, the peacemaker
And finally, let’s remember that peace with justice depends on our ability to sustain both the security of our societies and the openness that defines them. Threats to freedom don’t merely come from the outside. They can emerge from within — from our own fears, from the disengagement of our citizens.
For over a decade, America has been at war. Yet much has now changed over the five years since I last spoke here in Berlin. The Iraq war is now over. The Afghan war is coming to an end. Osama bin Laden is no more. Our efforts against al Qaeda are evolving.
And given these changes, last month, I spoke about America’s efforts against terrorism. And I drew inspiration from one of our founding fathers, James Madison, who wrote, "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." James Madison is right — which is why, even as we remain vigilant about the threat of terrorism, we must move beyond a mindset of perpetual war.
Obama, the JFK redux?
And we should ask, should anyone ask if our generation has the courage to meet these tests? If anybody asks if President Kennedy’s words ring true today, let them come to Berlin, for here they will find the people who emerged from the ruins of war to reap the blessings of peace; from the pain of division to the joy of reunification. And here, they will recall how people trapped behind a wall braved bullets, and jumped barbed wire, and dashed across minefields, and dug through tunnels, and leapt from buildings, and swam across the Spree to claim their most basic right of freedom. (Applause.)
The wall belongs to history. But we have history to make as well. And the heroes that came before us now call to us to live up to those highest ideals — to care for the young people who can’t find a job in our own countries, and the girls who aren’t allowed to go to school overseas; to be vigilant in safeguarding our own freedoms, but also to extend a hand to those who are reaching for freedom abroad.
This is the lesson of the ages. This is the spirit of Berlin. And the greatest tribute that we can pay to those who came before us is by carrying on their work to pursue peace and justice not only in our countries but for all mankind.