In 1961, it wasn’t hard to understand why an American president was obsessed with Berlin.

As Frederick Kempe explains in his new book, “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth,” the divided city was where the superpowers confronted each other, where the nuclear trigger might get pulled — and where, Kempe argues, President Kennedy made a disastrous miscalculation in accepting the Berlin Wall, a mistake that led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Berlin’s significance now may be a little less directly explosive, but it’s still a center of American presidential interest.


“Angela Merkel will have as much to do with Barack Obama’s re-election as anybody else,” says Kempe, also president of the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C., think tank focusing on U.S. international leadership and what we used to call the Atlantic alliance. “If you just take a look at the eurozone crisis and the Greek debt fund, we are inextricably linked. If there is a default in Greece, it’s going to have a huge economic impact on the United States.

“At the recent (International Monetary Fund) meeting, U.S. officials kept telling the Europeans, there is too much at stake for you not to save Greece.”

That decision, it seems, will be made mostly by Germany’s leader Merkel — in Berlin.

International choices were simpler when Berlin’s issues were nuclear.

Thursday evening, Kempe will speak on his book at the World Affairs Council in Portland, talking about how a crisis — especially a mishandled crisis — can echo down the following years. He’s talking at a time when the United States and Europe are facing a crisis large enough for anyone’s taste, except this time it’s less clear about who makes the decisions, and who goes along.

“What the alliance is lacking right now is an obvious and strong enemy,” points out Kempe, “and that’s what held us together.”

The threat of an international economic collapse, it turns out, is no substitute for the threat of the Soviet Union.

The U.S.-European connection, he notes, is still the most important economic connection in the world. But the alliance is wrestling with its current problems during “the biggest economic shift since the 18th century.”

What it needs, Kempe argues, is not less coordination but more, an Atlantic alliance working not only in concert but together with other democracies such as Japan, Australia and Brazil. Unfortunately, the alliance faces this major challenge with a considerably reduced sense of unity and identity.

Right now, NATO is fighting in Afghanistan, the first time it has exerted military power outside its historic area of focus. But it hasn’t exactly been a unifying experience.

“That’s where I think we’re straining the alliance,” says Kempe. “You have the alliance engaged in something not broadly popular. In the Cold War, we were engaged in protecting the safety and security of the entire continent.”

In Afghanistan, we’re in a place where neither European nor American leaders have persuaded their peoples that the effort is worth it, and in fact support for the campaign is dropping steadily in both places. At the same time, without a clear totalitarian foil, the West’s message is becoming as blurred as its unity.

“At the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Kempe points out, “everybody around the world was looking to the West. Right now, in the Middle East, in North Africa, it’s not clear where people are looking.”

In 1961, the West had major — even potentially explosive — problems. But lack of focus wasn’t one of them. “The Cold War,” says Kempe, “was an incredible discipline.”

To the considerable relief of people who grew up watching for nuclear missiles in the skies, we no longer have the Cold War.

But we’re also missing the discipline.

David Sarasohn is associate editor at the Oregonian. This article was based off an interview with Atlantic Council president and CEO Fred Kempe regarding his latest book Berlin 1961. This column was originally published on Oregon Live.

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