Obama Should Call for German Leadership

The United States needs a strong Europe, and Germany is the only state that can deliver it.

President Barack Obama should use his speech tomorrow at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to call for more active, confident German leadership of the European Union—which is needed if the continent is to rise above its present political and economic crisis. As Europe’s largest trading, investment and security partner, the United States has a strong interest in seeing Germany lead Europe toward that outcome. By calling for greater German leadership on his visit to Berlin, President Obama would advance American interests in Europe, further the cause of European integration, and follow in the footsteps of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.

Berlin has served as the backdrop for two of the most iconic foreign-policy speeches given by an American president since World War II. In 1961, John F. Kennedy’s declared “Ich bin ein Berliner,” reassuring nervous West Berliners of the U.S. commitment to the city’s security and freedom in the face of overwhelming Soviet military power. In 1987 Ronald Regan thundered, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” at the Brandenburg Gate, exposing the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet division of Berlin in the waning days of the Cold War.

At that time, Berlin was ground zero of the Cold War, a physical testament to the divisions of Europe left behind by the aftermath of World War II. Germany was a divided nation, host to hundreds of thousands of troops from the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. Despite its size, industrial might and wealth, Cold War Germany passively followed the political leadership of France in the European Union and the United States in NATO. That arrangement worked well for Europe.

Today, a democratic, peaceful and reunified Germany is the undisputed power broker of Europe. Berlin alone has the financial resources and political clout to achieve a more sustainable future for the European Union. The problem is that Germany is uncomfortable with the idea of leading Europe, given its troubled history and habit of ceding the responsibilities of leadership to others.

This attitude is unsustainable. Germany must shed its reticence of the past and take on a greater share of the leadership burden in Europe today. But given Germany’s reluctance to take on a more robust role on the international scene, Berlin needs some pushing from its allies to exercise leadership with greater confidence. In 2011, Poland’s foreign minister Radek Sikorski led the way by calling for more German leadership in Europe. It is time for Washington to do the same.

The United States should not shy away from offering its opinion on the political future of the European Union. Due to its commitment to Europe’s security through NATO, the United States is a European power. Washington has been an active shaper of Europe’s political future since World War II. The U.S.-led Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe in the aftermath of World War II was designed to foster the multinational cooperation that sowed the seeds for the European project. U.S. support for the enlargement of NATO and the European Union was also critical for integrating the former Warsaw Pact nations into the Atlantic community after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Europe again stands at a crossroads, and once more the United States has a huge stake in the outcome. Will Europe integrate further to produce a more sustainable and compatible economic and political framework? Will the European Union continue to enlarge its membership to expand the scope of a Europe whole and free? And will Europe take more ambitious steps to increase its footprint on the world stage to serve as a more effective global partner of the United States?

It is in the interest of the United States that Europe answers to “yes” to each of these questions. Obama should make his vision and ambitions for Europe clear, while articulating a desire to see Germany lead Europe in this direction. Berlin is unlikely to embrace a leading role without some gentle encouragement from Washington, as well as more active and engaged U.S. leadership of Europe itself. Indeed, greater American engagement in Europe’s affairs would ease concerns in both Berlin and neighboring capitals about a German-dominated Europe.

Presidents Kennedy and Reagan used their Berlin speeches to declare the U.S. commitment to Europe’s security at a time of Cold War tension. President Obama should use his Berlin address to express American support for confident leadership from a strong, democratic, reunified Germany within the European Union. By delivering this message in Berlin, Obama can advance U.S. interests in Europe, strengthen the cause of European integration and bolster his own historical legacy.

Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. The views expressed are his own.