President Obama's decision to welcome Chancellor Merkel to the White House should be understood as a signal that he wants and needs Germany's help to pursues his ambitious agenda.
It’s a good bet Merkel will remain chancellor after the German national elections in late September – either in another grand coalition or a government supported by the pro-market Free Democrats. But as far as German-American relations go, the coalition will not matter as much as the chancellor's management of a relationship with this president. Though more complicated than with his predecessor, it could also yield positive results for Berlin and Washington. These two political leaders share a number of traits that can lead to an effective relationship – if they can keep their domestic politics under control.
There has been a good deal of speculation in German and American press that relations between the president and the chancellor are full of tension. He is supposedly still angry about Merkel blocking him from speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin last summer; she is supposedly angry about Obama's response to the recession. He wants more German troops in Afghanistan; she wants more regulations of banks.
In reality, it's time to take a breath. The facts are that Obama and Merkel share not only some important goals, but also some character traits that can make them strong partners in the coming years.
Above the fray or simply more powerful?
Not since John F. Kennedy visited Berlin 50 years ago has a US president enjoyed the popularity Obama has in Germany. That popularity cannot be matched by any German politician – except for Merkel. Like Obama, the chancellor has been very talented at using her personal popularity to manage a noisy and, at times, clumsy government. Critics accuse Merkel of staying above the fray of political battles in order to protect her public image. Obama hears the same accusations. But the fact is both leaders are far more powerful than their opponents. They see similar ways of going after challenges to get a preferred outcome. Both are pragmatic and very good at figuring out where the best deal can be made. The question is: can they do that together in dealing with major foreign policy challenges?
What do these two figures need from each other now? Both are in troubled economic waters at home. German voters in September, as well as American voters in November 2010, are going to opine how those challenges are being met. Merkel has been very critical of U.S. fiscal policies while voices out of the White House have been returning the favour when it comes to Germany's slower response to the recession. The fact is we are in unchartered territory in this mess and are all looking for benchmarks to measure success. But the world's largest and fourth-largest economy, which is also the leading exporter nation, need to be taking the lead in forging new strategies to deal with the worst crisis seen in 70 years. Washington and Berlin working together can help find them. That is the first thing they need to agree on.
Setting high goals in foreign policy
Obama has set several high bars for himself on the foreign policy front in Afghanistan, Iran, climate change and improving relations with Russia. Germany's capacity to help reach those bars is a mixed picture.
While Germany is the third largest military presence in Afghanistan, Merkel has expressed no desire to add significantly to it given the national antipathy to that war. Yet Germany can contribute significantly in rebuilding Afghan society with aid, police-training and development support. However, Merkel has some domestic homework to do in getting more resources for those purposes, especially in light of recent German troop deaths. Once the election is over in late September, she needs to be making the case at home, and more importantly, she needs to discuss with Obama how to coordinate that.
When it comes to Iran, Germany is its largest trading partner in Europe. It can certainly use that leverage to put pressure on Tehran, more so than anyone else dealing with the nuclear issue or in the wake of the turmoil there after the elections. Merkel has been more outspoken on the post-election crackdown in Tehran than Obama. But it remains to be seen if Merkel will go beyond public outrage.
As the global leader in wind power, Germany can act as a leader of climate change and energy security. As Obama turns his focus to energy policy, he can use German influence as a respected leader in climate change to coerce developing countries like China and India to commit to stringent targets, a necessary commitment for further US action. In fact, Merkel met Friday with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to discuss opportunities for transatlantic cooperation, and success here can lead to better cooperation on other fronts, like Russia.
In the case of Russia, there is no more important country in Europe for Moscow than Germany. US goals with Russia are mainly strategic, for example gaining traction in arms control and non-proliferation, whereas German aims have more to do with energy policies and developing a relationship between Russia and the EU. There is lots of room for transatlantic friction if Berlin and Washington cannot calibrate their approaches carefully. As Obama prepares for his trip to Moscow, he will find no better counterpart in Europe to discuss how to size up Moscow than Merkel.
A reliable partner for Obama
Berlin and Washington have always argued, sometimes rationally, sometimes emotionally, about challenges. That will no doubt continue, no matter the leaders. American and German democracies are loud and complicated, as are most healthy ones. For Obama, Merkel remains one of the few reliable players on the political stage in Europe. Great Britain is in turmoil, French President Sarkozy is unpredictable, and the remaining leaders are less influential than the chancellor. For Merkel, Obama's popularity in Germany can be an important asset for her next term, assuming she gets another term and assuming they can work together in setting a shared agenda. For Obama, having a steady partner in Germany will help steer Europe to his benefit.
The rumours of tense relations between these two leaders have more to do with domestic politics in their respective climates than their actual interest in working together. Rather, both understand the opportunity ahead that can enable their mutual success over the next several years. This meeting at the White House is merely the first of many steps towards that success.