Berlin is an ideal place for an American president, even a would-be president, to speak to the world about freedom and shared values. Barack Obama's recent visit evoked the famous speeches of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan that defended the U.S. stance against the Soviet Union and tyranny in Eastern Europe. Both the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union are now gone, but dangerous, nuclear-armed dictatorships are not. Sadly, Mr. Obama declined to mention this in Berlin.
The stage for his disappointing performance was set several weeks ago, when the Illinois senator rejected John McCain's proposal to eject Russia and exclude China from the Group of Eight (G-8). Mr. Obama's response during a July 13 interview on CNN -- "We have to engage and get them involved" -- suggests that it is impossible to work with Russia and China on economic and nuclear nonproliferation issues while also standing up for democracy and human rights.
It has repeatedly been shown that the exact opposite is true.
The U.S. does not cede leverage with authoritarian governments when it confronts them about their crimes. Instead, the U.S. increases its credibility and influence with foes and friends alike. Placating regimes like those in Russia and China today only entrenches hostile, antidemocratic forces.
Commercial agreements, arms control and other mutually beneficial projects can be pursued without endorsing dictatorship. During the same interview, Sen. Obama spoke of enlisting China to help write the "international rules of the road." This is the same logic that led the United Nations to place China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia on its current Human Rights Council. Do we really want to live under rules created with the approval of such regimes?
While Mr. Obama talked about the importance of receiving Russia's help in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, Reuters reported that Tehran is acquiring advanced S-300 surface-to-air missiles from the Kremlin. This is the cooperation the West has earned by including Russia in the G-8.
In Berlin, Mr. Obama repeatedly mentioned the 1948 Berlin airlift. On CNN, he said he would like to "bring back the kind of foreign policy that characterized the Truman administration with Marshall and Acheson and Kennan." A strange statement, since President Harry Truman fought against giving up an inch to the communists on any front around the world. Not only did Truman save West Berlin; South Korea, Taiwan and Western Europe also have much to thank him for. By contrast, in their July 9 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Obama advisers Madeleine Albright and William Perry, secretaries of state and defense under Bill Clinton, criticized Sen. McCain's proposal to respond to major powers' human-rights abuses with more than lip service.
Mr. Obama also asked if the West would stand up for "the human rights of the dissident in Burma, the blogger in Iran, or the voter in Zimbabwe." Commendable, but what about the political prisoner in China and the recently convicted blogger in Russia? Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Russia's Dmitri Medvedev both came to power in blatantly fraudulent elections. The hypocrisy of condemning one while embracing the other destroys American and European credibility, and undermines any attempt at global leadership. Those of us living behind the Iron Curtain at the time were grateful Ronald Reagan did not go to Berlin in 1987 to denounce the lack of freedom in, say, Angola.
In short, the candidate of change sounds like he would perpetuate the destructive double standards of the current administration. Meanwhile, the supposedly hidebound Mr. McCain is imaginative enough to suggest that if something is broken you should try to fix it. Giving Russia and China a free pass on human rights to keep them "at the table" has helped lead to more arms and nuclear aid to Iran, a nuclear North Korea, and interference from both nations in solving the tragedies in Darfur and Zimbabwe.
Would all of this have occurred had the U.S. and Europe threatened meaningful reprisals? At least Mr. McCain wants to find out.
Reagan's Berlin speech is remembered for his command: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" But he also made a critical point about negotiating from strength, a point Mr. Obama seems to be missing. Reagan knew that if the U.S. backed down on the Strategic Defense Initiative, his speech would just be pretty words the Soviets would ignore.
Reagan avoided the mistake John F. Kennedy made when he met with Nikita Khrushchev in 1961. After the Bay of Pigs disaster, Kennedy was weak in Khrushchev's eyes and keen to make a deal, and the Soviet premier bullied him mercilessly in Vienna. The Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis were soon to follow.
Today, instead of communists there are deal-making capitalists and nationalists running the Kremlin and China's National People's Congress. They, and blowhards like Hugo Chávez, hardly represent the existential threats faced by Truman, Kennedy and Reagan. Yet Mr. Obama still is reticent to confront them, saying in Berlin that "we must reject the Cold War mindset of the past and resolve to work with Russia when we can, to stand up for our values when we must." But the Cold War ended and democracy became the global standard not because Western leaders merely defended their values, but because they projected them aggressively.
On Sept. 11, 150 years ago, another Illinois politician to run for president, Abraham Lincoln, said: "Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere." Not where it's convenient. Not in countries lacking large energy reserves. Everywhere, Mr. Obama, everywhere.