A Difficult Friendship with Obama A Wall Separates Merkel and the Land of Her Dreams

Angela Merkel is traveling across America this week. It's a country she loves, but the German chancellor is still having trouble connecting with Barack Obama. Her political style couldn't be any more different from that of the US president. She's fighting to prevent the US from disregarding or dominating the Europeans.


A wall exists in relations between US President Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Merkel constantly calls out across the wall. The response, if she's lucky enough to get one, isn't encouraging: Oh, I see ...

A wall exists in relations between US President Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Merkel constantly calls out across the wall. The response, if she's lucky enough to get one, isn't encouraging: Oh, I see ...

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is traveling around the United States this week. She loves the country, but she has a few problems with its president, Barack Obama. Her political style is vastly different from that of the US president, but she also has something else to contend with: Washington's disregard for and attempts to dominate Europeans.

When Merkel is no longer Germany's chancellor, she will fly to America. She will land in California, rent a car, drive to the beach and gaze out at the Pacific Ocean. That, at least, was her plan in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and she still clings to that vision: America, the Pacific and a long road trip across the entire country.

Merkel is in the United States this week, as chancellor, and she will hardly be in a position to satisfy her wanderlust. But at least she'll see the Pacific, when she visits Los Angeles and San Francisco after spending time in Washington.

She is traveling to a country whose stunningly beautiful aspects hold an almost childlike fascination for Merkel, but whose political realities represent a cause for concern. During her visit, she will encounter representatives of opposing camps in the country's deeply divided political landscape. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, Merkel will meet with protagonists of the American dream, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, filmmakers at Warner Brothers and some of the Silicon Valley's best and brightest.

Tensions with Obama, But No Open Quarrels

But first she'll be in Washington, where Obama runs the show. She will see him at a nuclear summit attended by 40 other heads of state. The two years in which Merkel has interacted with Obama have been filled with tension, even if there has never been an open quarrel between the two leaders. He is precisely the president she didn't want to see in office, because he is the antithesis of her. This sentiment has been palpable from the very beginning, and it hasn't gone away.

But Obama isn't the only source of Merkel's concerns about America. She is also vexed over Washington's policy, which fluctuates between disregard for and dominance of the Germans. This isn't just the result of the president's personal characteristics, but of the respective roles of the two countries: the United States, a superpower being challenged by China, and Germany, which wants to be a medium power, but only plays this role economically, not politically. Merkel is confronted with this underlying conflict again and again.

The chancellor was last in Washington on Nov. 3, 2009. She was there to give a speech to the US Congress, a rare honor for a foreign leader, and when she was responding to a journalist's questions shortly before the speech, something happened that almost never happens to her: she swallowed. She had a lump in her throat, and it rendered her speechless for a few moments.

'Nothing Inspires Me More Than the Power of Freedom'

She was excited, because this speech meant a lot to her. Then she stood up in front of the assembled US representatives and senators and said that because of the Berlin Wall, America had long been "the land of unlimited opportunity" for her. "I had to create my own picture of the United States from films and books, some of which were smuggled in from the West by relatives," she said. "I was passionate about the American dream -- the opportunity for everyone to be successful, to make it in life through their own personal effort."

At the time, she wore Levi's jeans that an aunt had sent her from the West, and because she longed for freedom, she also longed to see the country that had come to embody freedom, the United States. Before the joint session of the US Congress, she said: "There is still nothing that inspires me more, nothing that spurns me on more, nothing that fills me more with positive feelings than the power of freedom."

When Merkel lived in ossified, ailing East Germany, she imagined the West as a realm of efficiency and fantasy, imbued with a spirit of optimism. After the fall of the wall, she was disappointed by the Federal Republic of Germany, by its bureaucracy, sedateness and fearfulness. She sees the United States as a country that corresponds more closely to notions she once had of the West.

This is partly because she perceives her own life as a typically American, rags-to-riches story. She too has succeeded in making the unlikely journey from East German citizen to German chancellor, partly as a result of luck and partly through her "own hard work."

She would take a vacation there now if she could. But as chancellor, Merkel has to be readily available at all times, and given the time difference of six to nine hours, she feels that that is something she cannot guarantee. Instead, she experiences the country vicariously by barraging anyone who has just spent some time in the United States with questions.


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