Mrs. Merkel Comes to Washington (Again): The State of U.S.-German Relations
November 3, 2009
Q1: Why is German chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington today?
A1: At the invitation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, newly reelected Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed a joint session of Congress in honor of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last time a German leader addressed Congress was in 1957. In addition to her congressional address, Chancellor Merkel also met with President Obama. If you keep count of such things, Merkel and Obama have met bilaterally on four occasions since Obama took office: an April meeting in Baden-Baden, Germany, on the margins of the NATO Summit, two June meetings (one in Dresden, Germany, and another two weeks later at the White House), and today’s meeting. The two leaders have certainly spent a significant amount of quality bilateral time together.
Fresh from her September 27 center-right coalition victory (as predicted by President Obama in June) and as a product of German reunification herself, Chancellor Merkel holds the international spotlight for the next week as the world acknowledges the historic moment when the Berlin Wall fell 20 years ago. The chancellor will use her visit today, as well as a series of immediate follow-on visits to Washington by newly tapped Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, to continue to speak German truth to power on issues that are utmost on her agenda: global economic recovery, climate change, the Afghanistan mission, and the way forward on Iran.
Q2: Have all these meetings between President Obama and Chancellor Merkel produced tangible results?
A2: There may be a difference in American and German interpretation of the word “tangible.” Chancellor Merkel can take credit for her persistence in ensuring that President Obama remains fully informed (both privately and publicly) of the importance of American leadership prior to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. Although Merkel is unable to point to specific progress achieved thus far, her June White House visit did coincide with the passing by the House of Representatives of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (the Waxman-Markey bill), which outlined specific carbon reduction targets. On the other hand, the Obama administration has not been able to secure a substantial increase in German forces for Afghanistan, although German forces represent the third-largest international presence in Afghanistan following the United States and the United Kingdom. The German parliament must renew the German force mandate in Afghanistan by mid-December, and due to the growing unpopularity of the Afghan mission, it is unlikely that the German government will propose any increase in troop strength. If anything, Germany may reconfigure its presence in Afghanistan to focus more on reconstruction aid and capacity building and away from its military presence.
Q3: What is the general state of U.S.-German and U.S.-European relations 10 months into the Obama administration?
A3: Between the frequent visits to Europe by President Obama and the equally frequent visits to the White House by many European leaders (Merkel’s visit to Washington today coincided with the U.S.-EU Summit), on the surface the state of U.S.-European relations and specifically U.S.-German relations appears quite healthy and robust. However, there is an underlying and growing dissatisfaction on both sides of the Atlantic on how Europe’s relationship with the Obama administration is developing—or not developing, as some may argue. But on one issue, both the United States and Europe agree: talk is simply not a substitute for concrete action on a range of global challenges. The outcome of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference will be the first significant test for the United States’ bilateral relationship with Germany, as well as a test as to whether or not President Obama can live up to Europe’s unrealistic and euphoric expectations of his legislative leadership in the environmental arena. For now, perhaps it is best to reflect nostalgically on America’s role in reunifying Germany and the expansion of peace and prosperity that resulted in a united Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and leave the discussion over climate change and Afghan troop increases until December.
Heather A. Conley directs the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2009 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.