Chancellor Angela Merkel’s official visit to the United States comes at a time of considerable differences in what is a vital transatlantic relationship. “Europe and Germany have no better partner than America,” said the German leader on Tuesday but significant discord on economic and security issues is clear.
Although Barack Obama and his German counterpart share a cerebral style, a recent Newsweek profile noted how the chancellor regards the American president warily.
The relationship between the two got off to a bad start in July 2008, when Merkel criticized the prospect of Obama using Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop for a campaign rally. A year later, Obama, now president, declined an invitation to attend the twentieth anniversary celebration of the fall of the Wall, prompting one American wag to write that Obama had replaced John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” with the more prosaic “Ich bin beschäftigt” (“I’m busy”).
The Germans are increasingly skeptical of Obama’s lofty if not unrealistic policy pronunciations which he subsequently fails to deliver on, including his nonproliferation agenda and the suggestion he raised at the United Nations General Assembly last year about the imminence of Palestinian statehood.
Meanwhile, Obama still hasn’t taken the time to visit Berlin as president, feeding the perception that he doesn’t view Europe as a priority.
The austerity camp in Europe, naturally chaired by Angela Merkel as head of the continent’s largest economy, generally disapproves of the Obama Administration’s state activism. Before the president’s visit to Strasbourg last year, the Czech prime minister lambasted his government’s bailouts and stimulus policies as “the road to hell.” At the G20 in Canada that summer, the world’s leading economies agreed to fiscal discipline despite Obama’s defense of deficit spending and the president’s appeal to a “rebalancing of trade” in Seoul last November was rejected by Germany and China — two economies that rely heavily on exports to the United States.
Obama’s treasury secretary Timothy Geithner routinely mentions Germany in the same breath with China when he urges net exporters to boost domestic consumption. According to Merkel, “the benchmark has to be the countries that have been most competitive, not to reduce to the lowest common denominator.”
During a joint press conference with Obama on Tuesday, Merkel again stressed the need to improve “competitiveness” across the industrialized world and Europe. In the wake of the fiscal crises in Greece, Ireland and Portugal, Germany has pushed for budget cuts and economic reforms aimed at boosting growth in the eurozone’s periphery.
Germany’s Security Council vote against military intervention in Libya highlighted discord on security issues earlier this year. The German parliament voted to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011 while several politicians, including the current foreign minister, favor a removal of all American nuclear forces from Germany — a move that could undermine European deterrence and strip away an important pillar of transatlantic security.
German relations with Russia are improving however. As a result of Merkel’s decision to shut all of the nation’s nuclear power plants within ten years, its dependence on Russian gas imports is set to increase. The chancellor discussed last year with her French and Russian counterparts future economic and security cooperation in Europe — without the United States.
If there is a rift in German-American relations, President Obama hardly acknowledged it. “This visit reaffirms an enduring truth,” he said with Merkel standing by his side. “Our alliances with nations like Germany are more important than ever. Indeed,” he stressed, “they are indispensable to global security and prosperity.”