Obama in Berlin: Talks Security and Privacy in Former Surveillance State

Today Barack Obama gave a stirring speech before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, but what could have been a speech reassuring the world that the leviathan of American surveillance isn’t smothering them turned into a greatest hits speech. Obama spoke about ending the “perpetual” war on terror, closing Guantanamo, ending gender inequality, equal rights for the LGBT community, and climate change, all to rousing applause. But why didn’t we feel good about it?

Even the German people, know around the world for their love of Obama, went silent when the balance between privacy and security was brought up. Many of them, no doubt remember what it is like to live in surveillance state. This comes in the wake of German politician Markus Ferber, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s sister party, directly comparing Obama’s surveillance programs with those of the Stasi, the vicious Soviet controlled police that terrorized the people of East Berlin.

Twenty-six years and exactly seven days ago, Ronald Reagan stood before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and challenged the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall. The wall represented everything the Soviet Union was and everything Cold-War American imagined it was not: authoritarian, paranoid, influence-hungry, imperial, and unsympathetic to national sovereignty.

John F. Kennedy also declared in the his allegiance with the German people as they stood in between the Soviet Union and the Western World. In 1963 he said,

Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was civis romanus sum [“I am a Roman citizen”]. Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is “Ich bin ein Berliner!”… All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner!”

Now, almost three decades after Ronald Reagan’s speech, President Barack Obama stood on the same spot, in a country that has recently discovered that America has been spying on world citizens, praised them for the persistence of their democracy and challenged the world to move passed Cold War mindsets. Is the cold war really over? Today Obama conjured the rhetoric and tactics of Reagan and Kennedy even as tensions between the United States and Russia mount over the Syrian civil war. His presence in Berlin reinvigorated cold war politics even as he denounced them by proposing a new initiative to lessen U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals:

But we have more work to do. So today, I’m announcing additional steps forward. After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.

It also makes rousing rhetoric to talk about proud Berliners climbing over the wall as it fell, going from west to east, from despotism to freedom. But discussing what they left behind does not energize a crowd nearly as well. They left an impoverished surveillance state with limited, if any, civil liberties. Many people in the crowd most likely lived through the tyrannical practices of Soviet East Berlin, and that may have been why the most awkward and silent part of the speech came when Obama brought up the recent NSA spying revelations. They know that “balancing the pursuit of security with the protection of privacy” can be a much more sinister phrase than Americans do.

You can read the whole transcript of Obama’s speech here.