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Transatlantic prospects for the New Year

The Local · 12 Jan 2010, 11:21

Published: 12 Jan 2010 11:21 GMT+01:00

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The first few days of the New Year seemed to represent different worlds in Berlin and in Washington. While the American agenda was driven by the attempted terrorist attack on a plane in Detroit, the killings of CIA officers in Afghanistan, and the blame games about how to respond being played out between the Republicans and the Democrats, Germans were preoccupied with the non-functioning smart-chips in their ATM cards and the continuing bickering amongst political parties over domestic policy priorities. This is likely shades of things to come in 2010.

In both Germany and the United States, the year is going to be marked by an increasingly strident struggle over the political agenda, within both the domestic arena as well as across the Atlantic. Forging a consensus in this climate is going to be very difficult in both cases.

In the US, the themes for the mid-term election in November have been clarified during the past week. The continuing fragility of the economy - especially with unemployment over 10 percent - will dominate on one side of the battle. Whether the expected passage of a new health care bill will yield evidence of improvement in time for the early November elections is questionable.

The other dominant side will be over the responses to dealing with the threat of terrorism. The upcoming trials of terrorists in New York just blocks from the pit where the twin towers stood will offer grist to critics who see the Obama administration as "soft" on terror. The status of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iranian threats of achieving nuclear "break-out" capacity will also shape the political fronts which are already hardening.

In Germany, the political battle lines are visible within the governing coalition as well as between government and opposition. The traditional conferences of both the Free Democrats and the Christian Social Union this past week both delivered evidence of tensions across an array of issues, domestic as well as foreign policy. The arguments reflect efforts to strengthen the respective branding of these two smaller governing coalition partners among their constituencies. During a time where voters are becoming increasingly disenchanted with political parties, those efforts may be needed but they also make consensus-building that much more difficult.

Flashpoint Afghanistan

Just as foreign policy issues played little role in the September elections in Germany, the 2010 agenda will be primarily domestic. Chancellor Merkel must make a decision about the continuation of Germany's presence in Afghanistan following the upcoming conference in London at the end of January. That decision, whatever it will be, offers a battleground for the Social Democrats as they seek to reverse their losses from last year. But there are also voices on the right who are concluding that the effort in Afghanistan has reached its limits, as far as Germany is concerned.

As Obama has begun to significantly increase the US presence in Afghanistan, the German debate will be a factor in the coming months between Berlin and Washington. But beyond that issue, the German foreign policy agenda will be economic in focus as Germany looks to secure an international climate for its export-driven economy to best succeed. That arena will be no less contentious at a time when tensions both within Europe and across the globe will remain driven by the uncertainties ahead. Those tensions are already visible in the eurozone in the economies of Greece, Spain, and Ireland, not to speak of Italy. The fragile economies in Eastern Europe also generate questions about both economic and political stability in the region.

At stake this year will be whether the strong pull of domestic preoccupation on both sides of the Atlantic will undermine the need for asserting a common response to both national and global challenges. We saw such an opportunity to shape such a response fail in Copenhagen last month. Much of that had to do with domestic politics, be it in Europe, in the US, China, or in other emerging economies. But forging a consensus on this issue, as urgent as it may be, remains hostage to these conflicts.

Another platform this year will be the rollout of a new NATO strategy. That struggle to forge a consensus within the most successful alliance in history will also be driven by the respective debates in 28 member countries. Even two decades after German unification the consensus on the need for and use of the alliance remains incomplete.

Within Europe, now in a Lisbon Treaty framework, the construction of common policy efforts is supposed to be enhanced. Germany's role will continue to be a central one in determining that prospect, particularly in defining and implementing a common defence and security platform on which action can be taken. Apart from Afghanistan, one pressing opportunity would be in dealing with Iran's race to go nuclear, but there will be many others forthcoming.

Story continues below…

Domestic trumps transatlantic

Throughout all these challenges lies an overarching one: securing the domestic support to meet them. If an agreement on them cannot be developed at home, it makes it that much more difficult to build one with other partners. One glaring example of a lack of support was watching a few members of Congress wandering around the Copenhagen Climate Summit telling anyone who would listen that President Obama has no authority to make promises for the US government on climate change policy. This also happened with responses to the economic crisis. Add in the actions of political leaders pandering to protect their own political futures, and the result can lead to gridlock.

Amidst this climate we see on the one hand how interdependent we have become on decisions taken by an increasing number of important players on the global stage. And yet we can also see the disconnect so often among the respective national debates going on around these decisions. It is because we are so interdependent that we need to listen not only to ourselves but also to the many other important debates going on particularly in those countries which are defined as partners.

As we started out the New Year, Germans and Americans were in some cases talking about some common concerns while also preoccupied with their own local worries. And yet it is because those concerns and worries are increasingly interconnected that we need to continuously remind each other why the choices and decisions we make should and do matter. In this difficult year ahead, listening will be a more important part of communicating, as difficult as that can sometimes be.

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Your comments about this article

23:23 January 13, 2010 by Logic Guy
Well, I really hope that Germany will first focus on their own responsibilities. It's obviously a large country with a history of international influence. At the moment, most nations are struggling. Someone needs to step forward and set a positive example for the rest of the world.

America will always listen to what Germany has to say.

They know that Germany has done quite well when it comes to innovation and efficiency. And there is no better time than now, for Germany to develop solutions for the many problems that we face today.

Efficient-Conservatism is without a doubt the best system of living.
23:53 January 13, 2010 by Thames
¦quot;While Americans worry about terrorism, Germans are preoccupied with faulty ATM cards.

A very misleading heading. It implys that Germans don't care about what is going on outside there own little worlds. Most Americans I know are more worried about their keeping their jobs or finding employment than terrorism. The first priority of right thinking people are their families and those they are responsible for. Furthermore, worrying about terrism is not the same as doing something about it. Most people German or American can not do very much about terrorism so spending a lot of time worried about does no good and usually is only good for cable tv advertisers who make money off of fear.
20:21 January 18, 2010 by ejXinMI
As an American who frequently visits Germany, I say America and its citizens (everybody?) would be better off if their government would adopt some German-style attributes. They should focus on their own affairs, and stop playing world-policeman / savior. Domestic *should* trump Trans-Atlantic, and every other ocean and border.

Not to be combative, but I don't believe American leaders listen to Germany very well, or France, or England, or Italy, etc. As astute business-people selling our sovereignty, they are focused only on the highest bidder.
22:30 January 18, 2010 by Cubie17
ejXinMI, as the past has shown, if you concentrate so exclusively on things going on within the country, the things going on outside the country bleed over and eventually become domestic issues. Has it never occured to you that perhaps the reason why Germany and other European nations are able to focus so exclusively on their domestic agenda is because they are getting a free ride on the back of the US military. Must be nice not having to pay for your own self-defense.
11:28 January 19, 2010 by Schnuckel
I appreciate both points, but well put Cubie ... and is why I can envy Germany's cheap university tuition. I gather that all of America's defense spending is one of a million reasons that higher education is so expensive and will never be anywhere near free, but this is a whole other topic completely.
14:32 January 19, 2010 by silberkreuz
"Must be nice not having to pay for your own self-defence." I'm sorry, but there is defence spending and Germany does have an army, the simple difference is, it does not have troops posted in sovereign nations all over the world. The US has an unbelievably huge defence budget for no good reason as it is simply outdated in the face of the ending of the Cold War. The US military has been given a budget of $880­$1025 billion for this year. I think we can all agree that that is a huge amount of money. Also, to Schnuckel, America's universities will never be free or anywhere near it, because they aren't state bound and all operate as separate businesses with no obligations whatsoever. Simple as that.
16:22 January 19, 2010 by ejXinMI

If American military outposts in Germany were to close, there may indeed be an increase in German military spending. And what is wrong with that? You seem to think it's okay for the U.S. to station troops in Germany, but then you want to bash them for behaving like they are there (smaller German military). That's psychizophrenic.

Anyway, I do *not* advocate that the U.S. put its head in the sand vis `a vis world affairs. My point is that the U.S. government is neglecting its constituency while it is engaged in questionable overseas endeavors.

Why are there U.S. troops in Germany, Japan, and Korea when its border with Mexico is so obviously unsecured? By what logic does the U.S. spend cash to maintain those foreign bases while Hyundai is moved to purchase and distribute winter coats to impoverished children in Detroit? My mind rejects such contortions.
20:48 January 20, 2010 by Cubie17
The US has been closing and reducing bases in Germany which reflects the reduced security interest there over the last 2 decades. The bases that are still there are there more for logistical reasons. Bases in Japan and Korea are different stories. There is a real security interest there.

However, this is missing the point. The situation in Afghanistan is a much better example. The fact that Germany has troops in Afghanistan while German leaders are taking so much heat over it suggests that the current German government believes there is a legitimate threat in that country. If that weren't true, they would take the heat, they would just leave. On the other hand, Germany refuses to make any real committment to the mission there. They put their troops as far away from the dangerous areas as possible and assign them completely ridiculous rules of engagement.

This could be the result of only two possibilities. Either Germany has the ability to be a larger force there, but chooses not to or they don't have the ability to play a larger role because they don't have the military resources to do so.

The first option suggests that they want to put their name in the hat, but really want to leave all of the heavy lifting to the US. The second option suggests that they have neglected to provide such resources to their military because they prefer to let the US do all the heavy lifting around the world and within Europe (Kosovo anyone?).

Don't get me wrong, I understand the hang up that Germany has about their military with their history. And I also don't mean to pretend that Germany is more guilty than other European countries. But it is undeniable that Europe has put defense on the back burner behind expensive welfare programs. A large reason for that is because they have come to like the idea that they can pay lip service to conflict areas around the world while relying on the US to actually do something about it.
22:43 January 20, 2010 by Frenemy

>>"The US has been closing and reducing bases in Germany which reflects the reduced security interest there over the last 2 decades. ">"A large reason for that is because they have come to like the idea that they can pay lip service to conflict areas around the world while relying on the US to actually do something about it."
01:53 January 21, 2010 by bernie1927
I too can not see any reason for American troops in Germany. How come the Russians did not keep their troops in E.Germany and other countries? Should it not have been a withdrawal by mutual consent? If I were a Russian, I think I would consider the American presence in Germany as a provocation, besides, we can really not afford our lopsided military budget.
21:11 January 22, 2010 by Major B
@ Bernie1927. You have a point about American military installations in Germany. Essentially though, they are "forward operating forces" for potential conflicts. With the German border now two sizeable countries away from Russia, close to 2000 km, how can that possibly be a provocation?

@ Freenemy - Certainly some in the German Bundestag want the Americans to get the "f***" out and perhaps that last government. Can't see how anyone in Conservative Party would come up with that. Not a good way to sell BMWs in North Carolina.
14:21 January 23, 2010 by Frenemy
@Major B: *SELL* bmw's in NC??!! No, my friend, you've got it all mixed up.

These days we (as in "Germany"/bmw/daimler/etc) PRODUCE/ASSEMBLE/MANUFACTURE in the southern United States (because its a damn sight cheaper than German labor/production-costs....)

German cars sell themselves (there will never be a time when joe schmoe will say "naaaa, f#ck the S-class! I'd rather have the Hyundai!")
21:28 January 23, 2010 by bernie1927
Hi Frenemy: German cars sell themselves - really?

I drive my second Hyundai Sonata. Best cars I ever owned. Absolutely no service required. Set of brakes at 95,000 miles.

I had 2 Mercedes cars, mind you it was many years ago, when I still lived in Canada, but the last one, which I bought new (219 Hydrak transmission) was the worst piece of crap ever. Granted, today Mercedes builds great cars, but the German cars, because of their touchy tuning, spend a lot of time getting serviced. My wife drives a 13 year old Camry. Never a problem.
09:59 January 24, 2010 by Frenemy
Bernie ol' buddy, I never said that non-German cars are unreliable. Only that they sold themselves (the name/brand alone turns heads upon utterance).

Now, as for touchy tuning, you're absolutely right my friend. But the reason for this (in the US anyway) is that the predominant mindset in automotive mechanics (thanks to Detroit/old-school thinking) is that tuning should be performed with a wrench and sprocket set. Wrong. As soon as such individual adjust to the 21st century reality that you tune modern cars with a laptop, aforementioned cars will spend much less time in the shop! :-)
18:06 January 25, 2010 by Major B
My man Frenemy -- of course I'm aware of that. And West Germany and later the FRG has done a super job of emphasizing the German heritatge in America, proudly supported by German-Americans in Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc. The resurgence of German heritage in the states has been encouraging. And despite the above comments, Americans love their German cars -- PERIOD. Same as WWII movies, featuring the exploits of the Wermacht.
12:44 January 27, 2010 by Frenemy
"Same as WWII movies, featuring the exploits of the Wermacht."

As long as you are ONLY referring to the German Army/Wehrmacht (and NOT the SS or murderous gestapo) then I agree with you....
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