Merkel and Obama: Setting Agendas in Washington
Building an Effective Relationship
President Obama's decision to welcome Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House today should be understood as a signal that he wants and needs Germany's help as he pursues his fast-paced agenda. German national elections in late September will determine whether Merkel remains chancellor, but it is a good bet that she will if there is another governing coalition. But as far as German-American relations go, the coalition will not matter as much as the chancellor's management of a relationship with this president which will be more complicated than with his predecessor but could also yield positive results for both Berlin and Washington. These two political leaders share a number of common traits and can build an effective relationship if they can keep their domestic politics under control.
There has been a good deal of speculation in both the German and American press that relations between the president and the chancellor are full of tension. He is supposedly still angry about Merkel blocking him from speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate last summer in Berlin; she is supposedly angry about Obama's response to the recession. He wants more German troops in Afghanistan; she wants more regulations of banks.
In reality, it's time to take a breath. The facts are that Obama and Merkel share not only some important goals but also some character traits which make them potential strong partners in the coming years.
Above the Fray, or Simply More Powerful?
Obama came into office with an enormous wave of popularity in Germany, the level of which had not been seen since John F. Kennedy was last in Berlin almost fifty years ago. That popularity cannot be matched by any German politician - except for Merkel. Like Obama, the chancellor has been very talented at using her personal popularity to manage a very noisy and at times clumsy government. She has been accused by her critics of trying to stay above the fray of political battles in order to protect her profile with the public. Obama often hears the same accusations. But the fact is that both of these leaders are far more powerful than their opponents. These two leaders are like each other because they see similar ways of going after challenges to get their preferred outcome. Both of them are pragmatic and are very good at figuring out where the best deal can be made. The question is: can they do that together in dealing with major foreign policy challenges?
What do these two figures need from each other now? To start, both of them are in troubled economic waters at home and German voters in September, as well as American voters in November 2010, are going to give voice for the most part to how those challenges are being met. Merkel has been very critical of U.S. fiscal policies while voices out of the White House have been returning the favor when it comes to Germany's slower pace in response to the recession. The fact is that we are in unchartered territory in this mess and we are all looking for benchmarks to measure success; there is plenty of room to argue about same. But the world's largest and third-largest economy, which is also the leading exporter nation, need to be taking the lead in forging new strategies to deal with the worst crisis seen in seventy years. Washington and Berlin working together can help find them. That is the first thing they need to agree on.
Setting High Goals in Foreign Policy
Obama has set several high bars for himself on the foreign policy front in Afghanistan, Iran, climate change, and improving relations with Russia. Germany's capacity to help reach those bars is a mixed picture but can be helpful in certain cases.
While Germany is the third largest military presence in Afghanistan, Merkel has expressed no desire to add significantly to it given the national antipathy to that war. Yet there is far more to be done in terms of helping Afghans to build their society with aid, police training, and development support, and Germany can contribute significantly to these areas. However, Merkel has some domestic homework to do in getting more resources for those purposes, especially in light of recent German troop deaths. Once the election is over in late September, she needs to be making the case at home, and more importantly, she needs to discuss with Obama on how to coordinate that.
When it comes to Iran, Germany remains its largest trading partner in Europe. It can certainly put that leverage to use in putting pressure on Tehran, more so than anyone else in dealing with the nuclear issue or in the wake of the current turmoil in Iran after their elections. Merkel has been more outspoken on the post-election crackdown in Tehran than Obama. Will Merkel use that leverage to go beyond public outrage?
As the global leader in wind power, Germany also has the capacity to act as a leader in the realm of climate change and energy security. As Obama turns his focus to energy policy, he can use German influence as a respected leader in climate change to coerce developing countries like China and India to commit to stringent targets, a necessary commitment for further U.S. action. In fact, Merkel meets today with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to discuss opportunities for transatlantic cooperation, and success here can lead to better cooperation on other fronts like Russia.
In the case of Russia there is no more important country in Europe for Moscow than Germany. U.S. goals with Russia are mainly strategic, for example gaining traction in arms control and non--proliferation, whereas German aims have more to do with energy policies and developing a relationship between Russia and the EU. There is lots of room for transatlantic friction if Berlin and Washington cannot calibrate their approaches carefully. But as Obama prepares for his trip to Moscow, he will find no better counterpart in Europe to discuss how to size up Moscow than Merkel.
A Reliable Partner for Obama
Berlin and Washington have always argued, sometimes rationally, sometimes emotionally, about challenges. That will no doubt continue, no matter the leaders. American and German democracies are loud and complicated, as are most healthy ones. For Obama, Merkel remains one of the few reliable players on the political stage in Europe. Great Britain is in turmoil, French President Sarkozy is unpredictable, and the remaining leaders are less influential than the chancellor. For Merkel, Obama's popularity in Germany can be an important asset for her next term, assuming she gets another term and assuming they can work together in setting a shared agenda. For Obama, having a steady partner in Germany will help steer Europe to his benefit.
The rumors of tense relations between these two leaders have more to do with domestic politics in their respective climates than their actual interest in working together. Rather, both leaders understand the opportunity ahead that can enable their mutual success over the next several years, as demonstrated by today's press conference. This meeting at the White House is merely the first of many steps towards that success.