Obama vows to move beyond ‘cold war nuclear postures’ in Berlin speech

US president pledges to reduce by up to a third the US weapons arsenal and to encourage Russia to do same

US president Barack Obama waves after speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

US president Barack Obama waves after speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin yesterday. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters


Under a scorching sun, on the former cold war fault line at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, US president Barack Obama vowed yesterday to push for a world free of nuclear weapons.

Promising to “move beyond cold war nuclear postures”, Mr Obama pledged to reduce by up to one-third the US weapons arsenal, encourage Russia to do the same, and implement a “bold reduction” in tactical weapons deployed in Europe.

“After a comprehensive review I have determined we can ensure the security of America and our allies . . . while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one third,” said Mr Obama.

Message of peace
Fifty years after president John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, Mr Obama recalled another timely message in his predecessor’s address: to “lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today . . . to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves”.

That message of peace with justice remained relevant today, said Mr Obama, recalling Martin Luther King’s warning that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. The rebuilding of Berlin was testament to vanished cold war threats, he said, but peace and prosperity had brought with it complacency to global challenges from world hunger and global warming.

The event contrasted sharply with Mr Obama’s 2008 speech in Berlin as a presidential hopeful. Facing a 5,000-strong invitation-only audience on Pariser Platz, yesterday, standing behind bullet-proof glass in 32 degree heat, Mr Obama took off his jacket and urged his perspiring audience to do the same. “We can be a little more informal among friends,” he joked.

A cooler relationship was palpable earlier when, alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Obama denied Europe was “fading in importance” for his administration or that the US government was “rifling through e-mails” with its Prism surveillance programme.

“We know of at least 50 threats averted because of this information – not just in the US but threats here in Germany, ” he said, insisting the programme struck an appropriate balance between security and civil liberties and was “strictly limited” by a “court-approved process”.

Ms Merkel, conscious of her voters’ historic sensitivity to state-sponsored snooping, warned of a need for “balance . . . between security of people and privacy rights”.

Mr Obama returned the diplomatic note of concern when, asked about Europe’s ongoing economic difficulties, he said no long-term fiscal objectives allowed political leaders “lose sight of the main goal: to make people’s lives better”.

“If we see youth unemployment go too high then at some point we have got to modulate our approach to make sure we don’t just lose a generation,” he said.

Vowing to redouble efforts to close Guantánamo Bay, Mr Obama warned his audience at home to “guard against being so driven by fear that we are not changing the fabric of our society in ways we don’t intend and don’t want for the future”.

Chemical weapons
On Syria, Mr Obama urged Russia to back a UN team to gather evidence of military action by the Syrian government against its own people, including the use of chemical weapons, to enable transition, stop violence and halt sectarian divisions.

Ms Merkel stuck to the official line that Berlin was legally prevented from supplying arms to conflict zones but would consider a political or humanitarian role.

On Afghanistan, Mr Obama defended the announcement of direct talks with the Taliban and played down reports that President Hamid Karzai has suspended talks with the US in protest at his exclusion from this process. “President Karzai recognises the need for political reconciliation, the challenge is how to get things started when you are also at war,” said Mr Obama.

The president’s 25-hour trip to Berlin, his first since taking office, prompted a big security lockdown. Some 8,000 German police effectively closed down the city centre from the Reichstag down to Potsdamer Platz, where the Obamas stayed. The family visited memorials to the Holocaust and Berlin Wall followed by an afternoon shopping trip. While their parents attended an official dinner last evening, daughters Malia and Sasha took in a film before the first family departed for Washington.