Before the biggest crowd of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama tried to heal the rift between the United States and Europe, telling the thousands who gathered in Berlin that "no one nation, no matter how large or powerful" can overcome international challenges alone.
He tried to find common ground on issues such as climate change, Iran's nuclear program, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while distancing himself from the policies of George W. Bush, without criticizing the current U.S. President.
"If we're honest with each other, we know that sometimes, on both sides of the Atlantic, we have drifted apart and forgotten our shared destiny," Mr. Obama said. "In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common. In America, there are voices that deride and deny the importance of Europe's role in our security and our future. Both views miss the truth."
An estimated 200,000 people gathered for the speech at the base of the Victory Column in Tiergarten Park in the heart of Berlin, drinking beer and swaying to the upbeat music. Mr. Obama, however, faced the challenge of appealing not just to the assembled mass, but to audiences across Europe and back in the United States. He caught the mood of the crowd when he touched on issues popular with the German public such as the fight against climate change and a rollback of U.S. operations in Iraq.
"People of the world - look at Berlin, where a wall came down, a continent came together and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one," he said to cheering voices.
But he faced challenges with both the public and the government when he suggested an increase in German troop levels in Afghanistan. "The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda, to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation," he said. "We have too much at stake to turn back now."
At a press conference on Wednesday, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that troop levels in Afghanistan would not rise significantly: "I can give Barack Obama the good news that we will be boosting the mandate to include 1,000 more troops for the ISAF mission." But this level of increased military involvement, promised already last month, are not the numbers that Mr. Obama wants.
Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel met immediately after his arrival in Berlin Thursday morning, taking time only to pose for pictures for the press, before speaking in the German Chancellery for an hour. They did not make a statement after their talk, but Ms. Merkel's spokesperson, Ulrich Wilhelm, said they spoke primarily about the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. He said they had a "very open discussion in a good atmosphere, which went into depth."
Mr. Obama met later in the day with both the German Foreign Minister and the mayor of Berlin.
For his much-awaited speech, Mr. Obama chose as the central image the 1948 airlift, called die Luftbrücke, when U.S. planes brought essential supplies to the people of West Berlin, blockaded by the Communist Soviets.
Neetu Bains, 28, of Toronto, who has been living in Berlin since January, appreciated Mr. Obama's various appeals to history: "Everyone is here because it's history in the making, like when JFK came to Berlin."
But much of the young crowd, some too young to even remember much before the fall of the Berlin Wall, felt that their man of the future was looking too much to the past.
"I think that he was at the verge of losing the crowd when he went on too long about the airlift and anti-communism," said Kathrin Blaufuss, 31, of Berlin. "But he managed to pull the crowd back in when he talked about equal opportunity and the environment. It was then he understood better the European mood."
Mr. Obama garnered the most applause when he spoke on environmental issues. Since banners and signs were prohibited in the security area, many in the crowd instead wore T-shirts and decals urging action on climate change.
Daniel Mittler, political adviser in Berlin to Greenpeace International, attended the event and said, "Merkel and Obama have talked about climate change, and Obama will have learned that Europe expects the next U.S. president, and Canada for that matter, to make real commitments to cut emissions significantly by 2020."
Alex Laube, 21, of Chicago, meanwhile, was left beaming. "I've been planning on this the whole week … most of my friends have come too. I think his openness, willingness to listen and engage multilaterally will serve him well abroad."
Special to The Globe and Mail