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Germany Needs Tough Love from Obama

Berlin is excited about President Obama's upcoming visit and his speech at the Brandenburg Gate. Can he coin a memorable phrase like Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner" fifty years ago? Or Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall"? Will he offer Germany a different version of Bush senior's "partnership in leadership", but this time with more impact? I doubt it.

I have high hopes, but not high expectations. Yes, Obama will ask Germany to lead in Europe and beyond. He'll appeal to our responsibility, to our shared values and to the trust that has been built over six decades of transatlantic cooperation and how fundamental it is to freedom (and to all the other buzzwords). He will - hopefully - say a few nice words about our troops in Kosovo and Afghanistan, but probably ignore (or gloss over) PRISM and other controversial issues. Instead he will talk about the wonderful possibilities of the transatlantic trade and investment partnership (TTIP) and how it will lead to growth, strengthen our bonds and global influence and reinforce our values etc.

Obama will reassure Germany of America's continued support and solidarity, because he knows that Germans are concerned about America's pivot (balancing) to Asia and have complained that he has not visited us in his first term. [Oh, we crave so much attention and ignore that Obama has been to Europe eleven times since assuming the presidency, incl. three times to Germany. It has been my long position that Obama would have come to Berlin earlier and worked more with us, if we had make concrete suggestions for revitalized transatlantic cooperation rather than just photo-ops at various summits.]

Instead of turning his speech into a love fest for German-American relations, he should give some tough love. German citizens and politicians need a dose to understand where the United States is headed and what responsibilities Europe now has in its neighborhood.

These two articles are many weeks/months old, but explain quite well what I mean with tough love and why it's important: (Emphasis added)

Professor Sean Kay of Ohio Wesleyan University:

America is rightly pivoting its military priorities away from Europe to save money and focus on other global concerns. This is logical and should be taken to the next level as part of a new transatlantic bargain. A clear presidential statement declaring America's goal to help the allies so they they can fight a Libya-style air war and maintain a Balkans-style peace operation without the United States can facilitate European defense cooperation which better compliments American power. Limiting America's role in NATO as a strategic reserve, emphasizing Article 5 collective defense commitments, will keep the foundations of the alliance alive and place Europeans rightly responsible for their own regional security concerns.

Judy Dempsey with Strategic Europe:

Indeed, the French (and British) cuts should be the catalyst for fundamental change in Europe's attitudes toward defense. This is surely the time for Europeans to ask how they are going to protect their interests if they do not have adequate military and security resources to do so.

But Europe as a whole is not thinking along those lines. The record so far on pooling and sharing scarce military resources is miserable. Somehow, there is a misguided belief that the Americans will always be there to pick up the pieces.

Most European governments have not internalized the fact that the United States is disengaging from Europe.

Yet that development is hard to overlook. The United States has downgraded its missile shield plans for Poland and the Czech Republic. Over the past three years, it has brought home 10,000 troops. And two months ago, the last of America's tanks that were based in Germany during the Cold War was shipped back across the Atlantic.

Will Obama dare to say it this bluntly?

I doubt it. I am concerned that he will give a friendly, rhetorically brilliant speech and then receive a lot of applause, but does not reveal anything new, has no impact and will be forgotten. Does anybody remember anything Obama said in Berlin 2008? People here and in the United States still talk about how amazing it was that more than 200,000 Berliners attended this rally, but the speech itself has long been forgotten. Something about "hope" and "change" and "citizen of the world."

Mr President, please prove me wrong! Surprise us.

Endnote: Together with an colleague I have interviewed a diverse group of attendees of the 2008 Obama speech in Berlin: Hard-core, super-excited Obama fans, dispassionate Berliners and also sensible critics who protested against Obama's support of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). I find the video still fascinating, and in 2012 I caught up with a few people: Reexamining Obama's Berlin Speech.

I got an invite to attend the speech on Wednesday, and will tweet, post on Facebook and maybe record some video interviews as well.

Related content: Top Five Americans who Rocked Berlin


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