Merkel's 2007 Agenda: First Stop Washington
The focus on January 5 in Washington was certainly on a woman, but it was not Angela Merkel. It was the new Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to occupy that role since the founding of the Republic. Yet despite all the excitement on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President Bush allocated a lot of "quality time" for his friend, the Chancellor of Germany. The American press took little notice of the Chancellor's visit, as indicated by the lack of U.S. coverage in the print or television media in the wake of her trip. Their attention was riveted on the dramatic changes going on within the White House and in Congress; new faces appeared on many fronts to set the tone in Washington.
Chancellor Merkel and her team were assuredly aware of this when the last minute decision was made to arrange a "Blitzbesuch" - a lightning-fast visit - to Washington. They set it up with a well orchestrated press briefing two day before which resulted in a major story appearing the day before her trip in the English and German editions of The Financial Times to lay out the agenda she wants to address in 2007. (Click here to access the interview).
The list was a long one: the need to deal with the continuing challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East; her suggestion in that context to reinvigorate the instrument of the UN-EU-U.S.-Russia quartet to deal with these issues; the future of the world trade round of negotiations which are in danger of failing; the need to strengthen transatlantic economic ties, perhaps with a new format to encourage more harmonization; the future course of Russia; energy security; and even the old transatlantic juggernaut of climate change was on the list. And all of these issues got addressed, one way or another, behind closed doors and during the press conference. It was also significant to note who came to dinner with the Chancellor, including not only Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice but also the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, and the U.S. Trade Representative, Susan Schwab, signaling the fact that the agenda with Germany is one that covers a lot of policy issues. And it was a signal that they all take Merkel seriously. That the President gave Merkel the credit for rethinking the strategy for the Middle East and reengaging the quartet to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian challenge was recognition of his respect for the Chancellor. Merkel will now need to figure out how to take the President's responses and implement them in Europe and Moscow.
Overall, there were multiple audiences targeted for this trip, many of which were not in Washington.
The need to travel to Washington for less than five hours in order to have a meeting with the President and dinner with some of his top cabinet officials can be quickly understood from the vantage point of both sides. The Chancellor is wearing the two hats of the European Union Presidency and the G8 this year and she wants to maximize both opportunities. While the White House knows that Merkel is one of their best friends in Europe, they also know that the European public continues to take a dim view of the President. Merkel's trip was designed to underscore to that public that, like it or not, relations with Washington remain a central part of the European Union's agenda. For the White House, the search for ways to salvage some of the last two years of the Bush presidency requires looking for help on any number of fronts, particularly in the Middle East.
The agenda for the European Union is going to be a difficult one for Merkel to steer. While she may be in power for the next three years, there is no certainty who will be emerging as the next President of France after this spring's elections. There is also the question about the length of tenure of Prime Minister Blair in London, making two of the most important partners within the EU unpredictable factors in the political process. Getting consensus on anything in the EU of now twenty-seven members is a challenge any time and on any issue one picks. With this in mind, Chancellor Merkel's trip to Washington was framed with a statement she made at the press conference with the President, emphasizing that she wanted the EU to speak with one voice on a number of issues.
Making her first trip in 2007 to Washington and not to Brussels sent a signal to the other twenty-six capitals in the EU that she intends to exercise leadership this year in shaping the still-fragile framework of the EU foreign policy agenda. She will already have enough on her plate to seek consensus on pushing the next phase of the EU constitutional process forward. Keeping her fellow member states in line on dealing with everything from the Balkans to the Middle East will be equally difficult.
There was also an opportunity to send a signal to the unpredictable Vladimir Putin in Moscow that she wants to deal with the increasing influence of Russian energy politics with a united European and transatlantic stance, an issue on both the EU agenda as well as on the G8 meeting's menu. One can see a connection between those challenges and her call for a more effective framework of transatlantic economic integration between the two largest trading blocks in the world, a signal that may also be read in Delhi, Beijing, and elsewhere as an important consideration in dealing with both on the world economic stage. Reviving the quartet for the Middle East process also offers Putin a chance to demonstrate more good will than he has shown in dealing with Iran.
Since the beginning of her role as Chancellor, Merkel has felt confident in the international arena. Like many politicians facing domestic trouble at home - her coalition with the SPD continues to be a noisy and uncomfortable one - the opportunity to shine as a world leader is a useful advantage. Despite low polls on domestic issues during the past year, both Merkel and her foreign minister, Frank Walter Steinmeier, lead the popularity scales in the German public, which is strongly supportive of a greater level of European integration. The coming year therefore offers a unique opportunity to take further advantage of that trend.
The next time Chancellor Merkel is back in Washington will be around the end of April for the summit meeting between the European Union and the United States. While these meetings tend to suffer from overwhelming agendas and underwhelming outcomes, Merkel's leadership of Europe will be on display amidst multiple expectations directed at her from both sides of the Atlantic. As many opportunities present themselves, they will be shadowed by risks as well. Keeping domestic political squabbles from trickling into the foreign policy agenda will not be easy, either at home or within the EU. Yet, she has the baton at home and in Brussels. We will have to wait and see how well the orchestras can perform.
This essay appeared in the January 5, 2007, AICGS Advisor.