Obama Calls for Nuclear Reduction, Defends NSA's Prism Program in Berlin Speech

Barack Obama Speaking in Berlin - H 2013
Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images

Barack Obama Speaking in Berlin - H 2013

On the site of John F. Kennedy's historic "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, the president reflects on the Cold War.

It will be up to historians to decide whether President Barack Obama's speech in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate will rank among the legendary addresses here by his predecessors John F. Kennedy ("ich bin ein Berliner") or Ronald Reagan ("tear down this wall").

The crowd of some 4,000 invited guests who saw the speech live were a tiny fraction of the around 200,000 that flocked to hear then-presidential candidate Obama in 2008 address the city a short distance from the historic site. And while President Obama received applause and cheers on Wednesday, the atmosphere was nothing like the euphoria of five years ago.

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A recent poll showed 82 percent of Germans approve of Obama, but his star has faded even here, with many criticizing his tactics in the war on terror, particularly his failure to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and the use of surveillance techniques such as the recently-revealed Prism program.

In his speech, Obama defended the Prism program but said there needed to be an open debate about the issue.

"Government exists to empower the individual," the president said.

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In contrast to Kennedy and Reagan, who used the city of Berlin as a stage to project their political vision for the future, Obama mainly looked backwards, speaking of the legacy of the Cold War.

"It was here that Berliners carved an island of democracy against the greatest of odds," Obama said, saying the very spot he was standing on, in the eastern section of Berlin “was once a desolate no-man’s (land) and is now open to all.”

Declaring the Cold War officially over, President Obama concluded “we can say here in Berlin: our values won, tolerance won, freedom won."

Extending the Cold War theme, Obama made his one policy statement of the speech, laying out plans to sharply reduce nuclear arms stockpiles by a third.

"As long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe," the President told the Berlin audience.

The media attention this time around was also a fraction of what it was five years ago. While Germany's public broadcasters carried the speech live, as did many news networks, there was little of the buzz or media-event feel to the speech seen in 2008.