Chancellor Merkel in Washington: A Unique Platform for Sharing Agendas
Merkel Goes to Washington
With a couple of weeks to go, the forming of a new government in Berlin is proceeding at a pace which should see things wrapped up by the time Chancellor Merkel will be headed to Washington for her speech to the joint session of Congress on November 3. In that speech, we will hear about the framework of Germany's priorities in its foreign policy as well as the challenges she sees for Germany and its partners. That the chancellor will use the unique platform of Capitol Hill to make this presentation sends a strong signal about the importance she attaches to her relations with Washington and with President Obama as she begins her second term in office.
The honor of speaking to a joint session of Congress is a unique one; no previous chancellor has been offered that platform. One chancellor - Konrad Adenauer - was given the opportunity to address members of Congress - but not in a joint session of Congress. Thus, another first for the first female eastern German Chancellor.
Commemorating the Fall of the Wall
Chancellor Merkel's speech to Congress will happen six days before Germany marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9. She will unquestionably have seen the value of making this speech at a time when there are a number of issues looming over the German-American dialogue during the coming years and not all will be easy to build consensus around.
The night the Wall came down twenty years ago was not only a highpoint in the history of the Federal Republic, but it was also a moment in which millions of Americans could share in the celebration. Since World War II, no other country had seen as many Americans living and working within the country as did West Germany. And for most of them, there was a personal bond for those Americans who had been stationed in Germany along with their families over the decades following the war. Perhaps they were able to think to themselves that they had in some way helped the November 9 celebration come about through their contribution to the security of West Germany during the Cold War years.
Following that celebrated evening, it was also the United States standing squarely behind the process that led to German unification a year later, when others in London or Paris or Moscow had initial doubts about that path. Merkel will surely salute that commitment once again and remind everyone that she can attest personally to how that changed her life and that of millions of Germans over the next two decades.
Acknowledging Today's Challenges
She can also use that high benchmark of cooperation and solidarity to point to the many challenges we face today. They will include the threats of terrorism, but also those of climate change. She will also need to speak about effective responses to Iran's nuclear ambitions and restate her commitment to Germany's engagement in Afghanistan, despite its unpopularity back home. Merkel has been outspoken in her criticism of many of the root causes of the economic meltdown in the last two years and she will clearly point to the continuing need to forge reforms which will prevent it from happening again. Furthermore, she will cite the next stages of European integration under the soon-to-be-finally-ratified Lisbon treaty and stress how the European Union will be a stronger partner for the United States. All of this will go down well during the speech, which will certainly be colored with lots of applause breaks.
But it will be after the speech where we will begin to see how the appeals for cooperation and solidarity will shake out in policy priorities and decisions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Will Domestic Politics Interfere?
We begin with the old saying that 'all politics is local.' Unlike Mr. Adenauer who won an absolute majority for his party in the 1957 elections, Merkel is not ruling Berlin on her own. She has her main coalition partner in the Free Democrats (FDP) and also has to keep aware of the demands of her sister party, the Bavarian Christian Socialist Union (CSU). It is likely that there may be some discord between these two smaller parties as the government begins to look for ways to square the fiscal and economic circles during the coming years. The FDP went into the campaign calling for tax cuts but with deficits looming larger, it will be a challenge to sequence when and how to proceed with such measures. Even if the economic outlook for Germany in 2010 appears to looking slightly better, there will still be an increasing rate of unemployment. The challenge will be to find ways of cutting expenses, yet the questions of what and when to cut remain. Chancellor Merkel will have to figure out ways to do this without winding up with a lot of unrest in the streets of Germany in the form of strikes or other protests. She has a crucial state election in North Rhine-Westphalia in May where a coalition similar to the one in Berlin is in power. If that coalition loses, the Chancellor will no longer have a majority in the upper chamber, the Bundesrat, and that could put a bottleneck in front of her for the following three years.
Amidst all this will be the ongoing efforts to work out the framework of fiscal regulatory controls and regimes, and that debate continues to be complicated within Germany, in the European Union, and across the Atlantic. There is a lot of concern in Berlin that Washington will not be as rigorous in its pursuit of reforms and will return to "old ways" of oversight, apart from the mounting concerns about the state of the dollar. In turn, Washington is concerned that the signals coming out of Europe are not unified, especially when there are several analysts predicting another downturn sometime in 2010 or, at a minimum, the curse of jobless growth trends. Just as Chancellor Merkel is going to worry about those North Rhine-Westphalia elections in May, President Obama is already worried about the November 2010 congressional mid-term elections and the Democrats' majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Both leaders are going to feel the pressure of constituencies which want economic relief or even protection from the waves of uncertainty. All of this should remind both sides of the Atlantic to inject some renewed energy into the Transatlantic Economic Council to help sort some of this out.
The Foreign Agenda
That is also going to impact negotiations in Copenhagen at the climate summit in December when it comes to getting agreement on limiting climate change. The U.S. will arrive there without completed legislation passed by Congress. Europeans, particularly the Germans, are going to be disappointed by that but there is no way it is going to get done in Washington before the new year begins. What will come out of Copenhagen remains to be seen (see new AICGS Podcast with Alexander Ochs).
On other foreign policy fronts, the German reaction to President Obama's decision on next steps in Afghanistan will be a measure of how much of a consensus we have across the Atlantic on the goals, including an exit strategy. Right now the consensus is a shaky one, and if Obama signals that he is not going to make a significant investment of more troops and overall resources, the Germans and other allies will not want to move any further than where they are now. On the other hand, should he raise the stakes with substantial increases in manpower and resources, the pressure on Europe will be that much greater to follow suit.
Similar strains will emerge over next steps with Iran. The focus on the nuclear bomb threat may become increasingly caught up in the debate over how to get change in Tehran short of an attack on the installations. Pushing for more sanctions may sound like a good idea but without Russian and Chinese participation they will have limited impact. Again, consensus building is going to be a real challenge.
A Stronger, More Confident Germany
When Adenauer spoke to Congress in 1957, he was working to reintegrate Germany into the community of nations, reconcile with former enemies, and get the West German society and economy up and running after the total disaster it had gone through under Hitler. The foundations of European integration were being laid and Germany was one of the main sources of support and one of six founding members of the European Community. There was certainly no lack of domestic bickering in West Germany, be it about NATO membership or the path to German unification, but Adenauer largely succeeded in setting the parameters for what would be West German domestic and foreign policy for the years ahead. That would mean a strong European base anchored by a strong transatlantic alliance.
Forty two years later, Angela Merkel is chancellor of a much stronger and more confident Federal Republic of Germany embedded in multi-level international webs of institutions, within a European Union of twenty-seven members and powered by the third largest economy in the world. The speech she will give on November 3 will probably refer to the same twin poles of Germany's orientation as Adenauer did: a strong Europe with strong relations with the United States. Yet the parameters of those relations have become defined by a global set of challenges in which the U.S. and Germany within Europe have different roles to play than they did in 1957. Germany today has options it did not have in the course of the Cold War. The United States possesses great power but also faces serious constraints. That equation will require defining new sets of responsibilities, some of which need to be shared.
Just as the path which eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall was in part set by a sustained partnership between West Germany and the United States, so will the paths toward meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow be set by building a consensus on both the goals and the means to achieve them. We will need to revitalize and perhaps reinvent many of the tools for success, and we will have to challenge each other to pool both power and resources. We will need to make sure that the power of self preoccupation doesn't overshadow the need to think well beyond our own interests. It will not be easy. On November 3, we will hear what Chancellor Merkel thinks about some of these challenges. Then we will then see what she and President Obama can actually do about them.
This essay appeared in the October 16, 2009, AICGS Advisor.