The status of Berlin, the conflict between East and West, the expectations among many of Berlin’s people, the charismatic president – the specific historical circumstances were unique. And yet, it is still worthwhile to wonder what John F. Kennedy would have to say now, in 2013, if he came to Berlin. Or even to the Dahlem campus, and Freie Universität. Thomas Greven, an expert on the U.S., agrees to speculate, although he points out several times that it is all truly a thought experiment.
For a U.S. president, visiting Berlin these days hardly comes at any risk. Back then, though, Kennedy’s Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, advised him to avoid Berlin – the Russians might see the visit as a provocation. Germany’s role has changed over the decades; its value as a strategic ally has diminished, but its importance as an economic driver has grown. “In all likelihood, Kennedy’s message today would have to do with economic policy,” Greven says.
“Like Obama, he would probably urge policymakers to turn away from stark austerity policies to spur the global economy,” says Greven, adding that Kennedy was “enough of a Keynesian” to conclude that a crisis can only be overcome if nations invest during a downturn. What would the U.S. president say to the people of Berlin today? Kennedy might have a geostrategic message, Greven speculates.
If so, given the circumstances today, it would most likely have to do with the role of China, which has become a global power. “He would probably focus on limiting China’s influence – on balancing it out, in a way.” Freie Universität rose to the challenge Kennedy put to it in the 1960s – and still identifies with it today, decades later. This is symbolically clear from the excerpt from Kennedy’s speech that hangs in the foyer of the office of the university management, highlighting the university’s commitment to turning out “citizens of the world.”
The university’s deep identification with Kennedy and the principles he outlined is also clear from the fact that just a few days after his death, the Institute for North American Studies was renamed in his honor. Today, the institute is still one of the university’s most highly regarded institutions, drawing celebrated researchers and younger rising stars from various disciplines as a place to study North America: its culture, politics, sociology, literature, economy, and history.