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Obama at the Brandenburg Gate?

2:30 PM, Jul 10, 2008 • By ULF GARTZKE
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Barack Obama's upcoming trip to Berlin, scheduled for July 24, has not only triggered considerable media hype in Germany but also revealed sharp divisions within the country's political class, namely about whether the Democratic presidential candidate should be allowed to speak in front of the famous Brandenburg Gate location or not. Chancellor Merkel, for her part, has already made it known that she wants to keep the "most famous and history-rich location in Germany"--a place of "special exclusivity"--from becoming engulfed in the heated U.S. presidential election campaign. The reasoning of those opposing a potential Obama speech at the Brandenburg Gate is that historically the location has only been used for very special speeches by national political leaders, in the case of the United States it has been limited to current or former U.S. presidents--remember Ronald Reagan's famous 1987 "Tear Down This Wall" speech.

Against this backdrop, allowing the Democratic candidate Barack Obama to speak at the Brandenburg Gate (which he has not yet officially requested) risks not only creating a politically difficult precedent but could also create tensions with John McCain. Chancellor Merkel, after all, does not want to take sides in the current battle for the White House and has made it clear that she will work closely with whoever emerges victorious on November 4th. And indeed, in a recent interview with the tabloid Bild, U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary (and former Ambassador to Germany) Bob Kimmitt remarked dryly that "it would be nice if the German government would focus on strengthening its contacts to us rather than already beginning to look for our successors." In this context, it is interesting to note that German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Merkel's likely SPD challenger for the chancellorship in the September 27, 2009 general elections, is favorably disposed towards a potential speech by Obama (or McCain for that matter) at the Brandenburg Gate.

Ultimately the decision over whether Obama is allowed to use the Brandenburg Gate for what is billed to be a major speech on the future of transatlantic relations is up to the left-wing government of the SPD mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit. The flamboyant 54-year-old--who is ruling the German capital in a Red-Red coalition involving the post-Communist Left Party--is very eager to get Barack Obama to speak at the Brandenburg Gate for two reasons. First, Mayor Wowereit knows full well that the Democratic presidential candidate is very popular in Germany and that he would probably get an enthusiastic reception in Berlin; and second, he must certainly hope that sharing the limelight with Senator Obama will provide a boost to his own political standing.Despite all the political discussions in Germany, Senator Obama is certainly well advised to chose Berlin as the venue for his planned major transatlantic speech, regardless of whether he can give it in front of the Brandenburg Gate or not. After all, the only two other potential alternatives would be London or Paris. In the United Kingdom, however, the remains of the fraying US-UK "special relationship" notwithstanding, Obama would be dealing with the very weak political figure currently occupying No. 10 Downing Street. Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown is widely seen as a lame duck politician who will have a tough time serving out the remainder of his term (the next elections must be held on or before early June 2010).

In France, in contrast, Senator Obama would surely find an energetic and ambitious President Nicholas Sarkozy, who is also currently exercising the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union. However, the Junior Senator from Illinois should tread carefully in Paris. After all, a U.S. Democratic presidential candidate whose major political weakness remains his relative inexperience in foreign policy and security matters must certainly avoid the impression that could be taken for a ride by the French political elite.

In the end, Germany and Chancellor Merkel offer the best backdrop for both Barack Obama and John McCain to outline their thinking on the future of transatlantic relations. Over the past few years, Angela Merkel has become Washington's most important partner in Europe. At the same time, however, despite her strong transatlantic instincts and commitments, Merkel also decided to confront the Bush administration over such important international issues such as global climate change, Guantanamo, and torture. Merkel's successful mix of cooperation vs. speaking up against George W. Bush when necessary explains why Obama and McCain should make Germany a corner stone of their Europe strategy.