It's a tremendous honour for Chancellor Angela Merkel to address the US Congress this week, considering she'll be the first German leader to do so since Konrad Adenauer in 1957. But the invitation from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi undoubtedly comes with strings attached. It's a gesture that's expected to be reciprocated. The message is clear: the German government is supposed to shoulder its part of the burden for America's international commitments.
The reason for the invitation to Washington is that scepticism is growing amongst Americans about their country's engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's especially the Democrats – with Pelosi representing the party's left wing – who have no stomach for wars at the far ends of the earth. They want their government to put more money into health care reform and the creation of jobs at home. And it's exactly the people without health insurance or those that are unemployed because of the global economic crisis that elected Barack Obama. The US president has to show them he's making progress. Otherwise he's going to get a political slap in the face during the mid-term elections in 2010.
During her trip to Washington, Merkel will come face to face with America's demands – either while visiting Congress or meeting with Obama afterward. The US leadership could ask for more German money to stabilise Pakistan, a bigger contribution to Iraq's reconstruction or more German troops for Afghanistan. The United States also wants Germany to support tougher sanctions to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Washington patiently waited the outcome of Germany's general election in September, but following Merkel's re-election the honeymoon is now over. Berlin is going to have to deliver.
If Merkel brushes off American demands, Germany could quickly find itself sidelined in international affairs. Berlin is only important if it's willing to help carry the responsibilities of global leadership. If not, Germany will be condemned to remain a spectator in the future.
When it comes to the financial and economic crisis, the Americans also expect Germany to spend more to get the global economy back on track. If the chancellor once again calls for budgetary discipline while pointing to the risk of inflation, she'll be walking on thin ice in Washington.
As for climate change, domestic politics is preventing the United States from taking the leading international role the chancellor and other European leaders want America to take. Obama is having trouble introducing new climate protection laws because of fears about their economic cost. His administration is also preoccupied with other important legislation like health care reform. So it's unlikely Merkel will get very far with demands for the United States to do more to combat global warming.
And with the United States likely to reject ambitious CO2 reduction targets at negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto treaty in Copenhagen, there could be an increasing strain on transatlantic ties in the coming months.
Dr. Josef Braml is a member of the Transatlantic Relations department of the German Council on Foreign Relations. Translation by The Local.