Searching for Synergy in Stralsund
During her last visit to Washington D.C., Chancellor Merkel invited the President to spend a day in eastern Germany before heading with her to the G-8 meeting in St. Petersburg, which happens next week. The visit is to Merkel's electoral district in the state of Mecklenberg-Vorpommern. According to the White House, "the visit will underscore our two nations' commitment to advancing freedom and prosperity and to strengthening the trans-Atlantic partnership." Chancellor Merkel has explained that she wants to show the President what has been accomplished in eastern Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The fact that this area has one of the highest unemployment rates in Germany and is one of the weakest states still struggling with the transition since unification may be of less importance to the President as he tours the towns of Stralsund and Trinwillershagen,. The gesture of the visit is aimed at Angela Merkel, with whom he had bonded since she became Chancellor. His respect for her biography and for her political positions with regard to the issues that both leaders will be discussing at the G-8 meeting has been growing consistently as they have gotten to know each other. The President has not made many personal gestures toward other leaders during his time in office; it clearly means that he enjoys the Chancellor's company.
While the President remains highly unpopular in German public opinion - demonstrations against his visit are already being prepared - Angela Merkel has been able to establish a relationship with him without losing support at home. Part of the reason is that she has addressed issues in public, such as Guantanamo or the CIA rendition flights controversy, without a tone of condemnation and more with an emphasis on finding joint solutions to the challenges they represent. Yet she has also been able to convey to a skeptical German audience that she can talk candidly and openly with the President who also seeks her advice.
A little-noticed demonstration of this relationship could be seen on May 6 in Washington, when Chancellor Merkel was invited to give a speech at the annual meeting of the American Jewish Committee. The President was also in attendance and spoke first. As always, the lectern from which the President spoke had the Presidential seal attached to it. Normally that seal would be removed for the following speaker, which was in fact Chancellor Merkel. Not only was it not removed when she spoke, the President, who usually leaves such events after he is finished speaking, sat attentively through Merkel's address.
The signal Bush wants to send with his visit next week is directed at a European leader on whom he needs to depend during the last two years of his term. With political turmoil facing him in multiple directions, he needs to have allies as hard decisions need to be made. This will be Merkel's first G-8 meeting as Chancellor and it will also be her chance to see what the agenda should be when Germany hosts the G-8 meeting next year. The two politicians will be spending a lot of time conferring on what can be accomplished now and then.
Merkel and Bush will be joining the six other G-8 leaders in St. Petersburg, all of whom need to face the need of forging common responses to serious threats. North Korea is the most recent demonstration. But the continuing face off with Iran remains of central importance. As this year's host, Russia has set its own priorities for the meeting next week with a focus on energy, health crises, and education. Yet dealing with Russia itself is going to be a challenge, given its attempts to use its increasing leverage with energy supplies to push its own agenda. Chancellor Merkel's last visit to Russia in April signaled a change in tone when it comes to discussing conflicting views on how to deal with Iran, Hamas and Israeli security, and the Belorussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, among many other issues. In particular, Germany and Russia are engaged in joint ventures in developing gas supplies. With Germany's critical role as Russia's top trading partner, the Moscow-Berlin dialogue is of critical importance to both countries and to the United States. Germany's influence on that dialogue and between the EU and Russia is of central importance, and the challenge will be to forge a common approach in dealing with all of these issues. Here again, Merkel's role will be an important one for the President.
As the Chancellor and the President stroll around Stralsund next week, they can reflect on what the world used to look like from the other side of the Berlin Wall as Merkel knew it prior to 1989 and how much has changed since then. German unification remains the highest of benchmarks in the recent history of German-American relations when it comes to advancing freedom and prosperity. Yet just as Stralsund continues to confront major problems in coming to grips with the changes in the wake of that transformation in Germany, we all remain confronted with the transformations that were set in motion after November 11, 1989, September 11, 2001, and by decisions taken thereafter, some for better, others for worse.
Perhaps the moment in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern will give Merkel and Bush an opportunity to draw on past lessons to shape better future choices. Stralsund still calls itself a Hanseatic city, after the famous league of cities which organized trade in the Baltic region over eight hundred years ago; an earlier version of the WTO perhaps. Eventually the league succumbed to the changes fomented by the rise of the territorial state and other geopolitical transformations. But it left a legacy of negotiating common interests amidst diversity of views, lessons not too late for learning.
This essay appeared in the July 6, 2006 AICGS Advisor.
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