A 'Teflon' Chancellor and 'Wildcard' Foreign Minister How America Views the Germans

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in Seoul. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious, but is risk averse and rarely creative," reads one cable.
REUTERS

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in Seoul. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious, but is risk averse and rarely creative," reads one cable.

By , John Goetz, , and

Part 3: American Insight into German Infighting


Merkel is more reserved toward his successor, Barack Obama. He is immune to her charm offensive and the antithesis to her approach to politics. Obama has demonstrated that politics can inspire people. Merkel, on the other hand, approaches politics with a scientist's precision. She likes to point out that Obama has announced several reforms, but has accomplished very little.

The US government senses this distance -- it has repeatedly been the topic of internal discussions. In preparation for Secretary of State Clinton's visit to Berlin in the spring of 2009, Ambassador Murphy wrote the following about Merkel: "She is still trying to get a sense of working with the new Washington Administration and seems uncertain at times."

Merkel was scheduled to meet with Obama on the sidelines of a NATO summit in the southwestern German resort town of Baden-Baden in April 2009. In preparation for the meeting, John Koenig, the former chargé d'affaires at the US Embassy in Berlin, wrote a memo on Merkel for the new US president: "Merkel is methodical, rational, and pragmatic," the memo reads. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious but is risk averse and rarely creative," he continues, concluding that "she will remain a very circumspect ally until the election."

US diplomats note their view that the chancellor approaches international diplomacy with the aim of determining how she can profit from it domestically. She is "known for her reticence to engage in aggressive politics, preferring to stay in the background until the 'correlation of forces' is clear and then engaging to nudge the debate in her preferred direction." In the classified reports, the chancellor is referred to several times as Angela "Teflon" Merkel, apparently because so little sticks to her.

A Furious Chancellor

But, the dispatches note, Merkel can be very energetic once she has made up her mind. In November 2009, at the height of the struggle over the future of German automaker Opel, the chancellor flew to Washington, where she discovered that General Motors (GM) had decided, contrary to previous announcements, not to sell Opel to the Canadian auto parts maker Magna. Merkel was appalled, and thanks to the network of informants, the US Embassy quickly learned of her fury. According to embassy reports, "a high-level source indicated that Chancellor Merkel is furious over the GM move and refuses to talk to GM's leadership." A Merkel advisor told the ambassador that the chancellor was so angry that she even refused to take a telephone call from GM CEO Fritz Henderson.

In analyzing the course of Merkel's chancellorship, the Americans have divided it into three phases. At the beginning, after coming into power in 2005, Merkel was seen as a great chancellor whose calm demeanor made her popular among Germans. Her popularity was at "stratospheric levels." In April 2007, leading up to a visit to the United States, the diplomats write: "Angela Merkel arrives in Washington in an enviable position of political strength, both at home and in the EU. However, she is conscious that her strength derives largely from the weakness of her counterparts."

The second phase describes the disillusionment within her first governing coalition, a marriage of Merkel's conservatives with the center-left Social Democrats, known as the Grand Coalition. The chancellorship is no longer pleasant, the US envoys noted in a dispatch. "Merkel's conservatives and Steinmeier's Social Democrats resemble the proverbial couple that hated each other but stayed together for the sake of the children," then Ambassador William Timken Jr. wrote to his boss, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Still, strife within the coalition was seen as unimportant as long as it didn't jeopardize trans-Atlantic relations.

The current concerns, in phase 3, are more significant. "One hundred days after Germany's black-yellow (eds. note: conservatives and FDP) coalition took office, a strong, unified government led by Chancellor Merkel has yet to materialize," the embassy wrote in a cable dated Feb. 3, 2010. "Chancellor Merkel may have ironically cast off the yoke of the Grand Coalition only now to be encumbered with a new FDP-CSU double yoke, restrained by an FDP bent on delivering on campaign promises and a CSU distracted over its rivalry with the FDP and internal problems."

The Afghanistan Debate

And then there is Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU). He is the opposite of Merkel, embodying hope for the Americans, a "foreign policy expert, a transatlanticist and a close and well-known friend to the United States."

The relationship between Guttenberg and US officials is close, and they meet regularly. The minister feels that he is among friends with the Americans, which encourages him to speak frankly. In December 2008, he complained, for example, that "Merkel was not being assertive enough on the economy."

He also denigrates fellow cabinet member Westerwelle, as the minutes of a discussion between Guttenberg and Murphy on Feb. 3, 2010 demonstrate. The meeting took place a few days after the international Afghanistan conference in London, where the number of German troops in Afghanistan was a topic of discussion. The German government had promised to send only 850 additional soldiers, but the US had sought a bigger commitment. Westerwelle, Guttenberg complained, had prevented a larger engagement. "In explaining the lower-than-expected planned increase in the number of German troops for Afghanistan, Guttenberg told the Ambassador that Westerwelle's opening position in the coalition negotiations on the new mandate had been 'not one additional soldier.' In that context, it had been difficult to get agreement on any increase at all."

After the meeting, Murphy sent a cable to Clinton, in which he writes that according to Guttenberg, "Foreign Minister Westerwelle -- not the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- had been the single biggest obstacle to the government seeking a bigger increase in German troops for Afghanistan."

But it wasn't just that Guttenberg was making snide remarks about Westerwelle. The FDP also had some disparaging things to say about Guttenberg. "While Guttenberg said he is avoiding public comment on whether the outcome of the coalition talks on the new mandate is a 'victory' for him or Westerwelle, an FDP spokesperson told (an embassy employee) separately that Westerwelle's hard line against additional troops had been motivated in part to 'teach Guttenberg a lesson,'" Murphy writes. "She claimed that Guttenberg had been too presumptuous last fall in making speeches in Canada and the US about how Germany would significantly increase its troop contribution to ISAF. He might have been able to get agreement on a higher ceiling had he engaged parliamentarians first and showed 'greater respect for the political process.'"

A Portrait of Germany's Political Elite

Mutual denigration appears to be widespread among German politicians. If one is to believe the written summaries of the conversations, German decision-makers spoke very openly with US diplomats and even seemed to enjoy the opportunity to attack each other without inhibition. In this sense, the cables also paint a portrait of the political elite of this country.

There is Andrea Nahles, who apparently had no compunctions about sharply criticizing her party's eventual candidate for the chancellorship ahead of last fall's general elections: "Deputy SPD Chair Andrea Nahles, the leading left-wing critic of Steinmeier's centrist approach, said that she was unhappy that 'the US knows more about Steinmeier than I do,' referring to Steinmeier's role as Chancellery Chief of Staff and Intelligence Coordinator under Gerhard Schroeder. Nahles suggested strongly that the left wing of the SPD could portray Steinmeier as too close to the US on intelligence-related issues ... thereby damaging his candidacy."

And then there is Rainer Brüderle (FDP), the current economics minister who, as a member of the opposition in 2009, commenting on the choice of Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg as economics minister, said that the CSU was apparently pleased to be able to summon up someone "who can read and write."

Complaints about the chancellor were also reported to the Americans. According to a November 2006 embassy analysis, leading CDU figures like Johannes von Thadden and members of parliament Ursula Heinen and Philipp Missfelder had told embassy officials about the "deep dissatisfaction" with Merkel and the government within the CDU.

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