For a time, it seemed as if Obama could close the divide between the two nations. For Germans, he was the presidential candidate they had always wished for: powerfully eloquent and charismatic, sophisticated and not nearly as ordinary and rough around the edges as George W. Bush, the trigger-happy cowboy from Texas.
But to the Germans' chagrin, Obama didn't transform the White House into the United Nations headquarters, not even when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a rush of euphoria only 11 months after his inauguration in 2009. He neither closed Guantanamo nor eliminated the death penalty. And instead of American Special Forces killing foreigners, drone pilots in air-conditioned barracks were checking off names on execution lists signed by Obama.
During an interview in his heavily secured office, Ambassador Emerson says he comes from the financial industry, an industry in which a rule applies that is also valid in politics: "Satisfaction is expectations minus results." Emerson's apparent implication is that Obama was already fighting a losing battle when he came into office -- the Germans' expectations were simply too high.
Emerson doesn't deny that a few things have gone wrong in recent years. But at the end of the day, he adds, the decision to maintain close ties between Germany and the West should be obvious. Which country has a free press? The United States or Russia? Which president takes a stand and is willing to discuss the limits of intelligence activity with the entire country? Obama or Putin? "We share the same values," Emerson says, and that must be emphasized again and again.
The Last Straw?
This may be true in theory, but in practice Europe and America are drifting farther and farther apart. This is even evident to people like Friedrich Merz, whose job description includes keeping the divide as narrow as possible. Merz is the chairman of the Atlantic Bridge, a group that has promoted friendship between Germany and the United States for more than 50 years. At the moment, Merz is busy promoting the trans-Atlantic free trade agreement. "The agreement would be a sign that Western democracies are sticking together," he says.
But even a conservative advocate of the market economy like Merz is often baffled by what is happening in the United States. Merz welcomes all forms of political debate, but when he sees how deep the ideological divides are in the United States, he is pleased over Europe's well-tempered form of democracy. Responding to the new spying allegations last Friday, he said: "If this turns out to be true, it's time for this to stop."
America Has Become Unattractive
To put it differently, it has become uncool to view America as a cool place. Only a few years ago, for example, the post of head of the German-US Parliamentary Friendship Group in the Bundestag was a highly coveted one, filled by such respectable politicians as former Hamburg Mayor Hans-Ulrich Klose. Today it is less desirable. After the most recent parliamentary election, Philipp Missfelder, the head of the youth organization of Germany's conservative sister parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavaria's Christian Social Union (CSU), decided to resign from his post Coordinator of Trans-Atlantic Cooperation and assume the position of CDU treasurer in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia instead. For Missfelder, managing party finances took a priority over a once attractive trans-Atlantic post.
He was eventually succeeded by Jürgen Hardt, an affable man who has had little contact with the United States in the past: Before becoming a member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, in 2009, he was head of corporate communications for vacuum cleaner-maker Vorwerk. At least he has experience selling relatively unglamorous products.
Hardt plans to launch a marketing offensive in the United States soon. "I'm still searching for a way to reach as many people as possible," he says. He envisions interviews in American regional newspapers to promote the trans-Atlantic alliance, in an echo of Adenauer's decision to announce Germany's willingness to engage in rearmament in the Cleveland Plain Dealer rather than the Washington Post. After that, Hardt intends to embark on a marketing tour across the United States.
Do Germans Suffer from an Excess Dose of Morality?
It's a necessary effort. Many Americans view the Germans the way parents treat an adult son who still lives at home and is reluctant to venture out into the harsh, real world.
The United States bore the largest burden in the Afghanistan war, it must rein in rising superpower China and it accounts for more than 70 percent of the military spending of all NATO countries. The glaring paradox of West Germany's former pacifism was that it was only made possible by the American nuclear umbrella. Now that the Cold War is over, the United States would have no objection to the Europeans taking on greater responsibilities, at least in their own neighborhood.
But this is precisely where the problem begins, at least according to Gary Smith, head of the American Academy in Berlin. Smith, who has lived in Germany for more than 20 years, feels that Germans suffer from one thing above all: an excess dose of morality. He can certainly understand why Germans are upset over the NSA spying on Merkel's mobile phone, he says. On the other hand, he adds, the United States is the only democratic world power, and it faces rivals like China and Russia, which have few scruples when deploying their intelligence agencies. "The Germans are completely obsessed with Merkel's mobile phone, but they don't see the big picture," says Smith.
This is what the big picture looks like for Smith: On the one hand, the Germans are always quick to criticize the minute the Americans apply their military muscle or give their NSA technologists their marching orders. On the other hand, they have a tendency to back off when the situation becomes serious on the global political stage, most recently during the West's military mission in Libya. And who, Smith asks, is expected to stop Putin if he feels the urge, once again, to swallow up parts of other countries?
Germans 'Closer To Russian' Than any other Europeans
Unlike the Americans' fortress, the Russian Embassy embodies a nation filled with longing: longing for greatness, longing to be respected and admired and longing to impress and please others. But it has no apparent need for security.
Anyone arriving at the Russian Embassy for an appointment merely has to press a doorbell and state his or her name. Then a buzzer rings, the door opens and the visitor is allowed to enter the building. There is no identification check, bags are not inspected and there are no security checkpoints. Visitors are not asked to leave their mobile phones, recording devices and pocketknives at the front desk. Security checks could be interpreted as a sign of mistrust of visitors -- and that would be impolite.
The interior is spacious, vast and empty, like Russia. A female staff member accompanies visitors up an enormous black marble staircase, which, as she explains, Finnish Marshall Carl Gustaf Mannheim gave Hitler to be used in a victory monument in Moscow. Sound reverberates in the Cathedral-like domed hall, where daylight faintly filters through a glass mosaic depicting the Spasskaya Tower of the Kremlin. Everything is oversized and slightly gloomy, the kind of architecture that gives the visitor the sense of being in the midst of a religious service.
Ambassador Vladimir Mikhailovich Grinin walks out to meet his guests through a gigantic banquet room. The rooms are furnished in precious wood, heavy materials and splendid chandeliers -- old-fashioned but tasteful.
Grinin greets his guests in polished German -- the only sign that it isn't his first language is a slight Russian accent. He embodies the close relationship between Germany and Russia, which he invokes during our conversation. Grinin's father and father-in-law fought on the front during World War II. This is his third diplomatic posting in Germany. He was in Bonn in the 1970s and in East Berlin during the period surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is very familiar with Germany and has kept a close eye on today's top politicians, in some cases for decades. "The Germans," he says, "are closer to the Russians than any other nation in Europe."
For the Russian ambassador, there is no contradiction between East and West. He views the relationship between Russia and the West as a triangle consisting of the United States, Russia and the European Union. And the EU, he says, consists mainly of Germany. "It would be good if the Germans would use their special situation to achieve greater understanding within the triangle," says Grinin. Germany, which understands both the Russians and the Americans better than anyone else, should play the role of an intermediary, so as to ensure "that everyone can find a common language."
'Never Another War against Russia'
During his chancellorship, Gerhard Schröder saw this as Germany's destiny. He believed that the country's geographic location in the heart of Europe gave it a special responsibility. "Germany, as a country in the middle of Europe, was always on both sides; it was always its task to overcome Europe's civilizational tension," says political scientist Herfried Münkler.
For many Germans, the close relationship with Russia that Ambassador Grinin invokes is part of an identity that has developed over time -- and not just in the eastern part of the country. The phrase "never another war" has become part of German DNA. But there is also another version of the phrase: "Never another war against Russia." But Germans' unique understanding of Russia doesn't merely stem from radical pacifism and Germany's post-1945 aversion to conflict.
Russendisko, or "Russian Disco," a dance club held in Berlin's Mitte district for the last 15 years, is usually an indulgent event where the alcohol flows freely. Its founder, best-selling author Vladimir Kaminer, who writes humorous books about Germany written from a foreigner's perspective, is eating a salad with goat meat and says that Russia has always been a dream for the Germans.
He quotes German historian Karl Schlögel, who said: "Germans see spirituality in the Siberian landscape," and notes that there is something to Schlögel's words. Why, Kaminer asks with a smile, do German television networks always broadcast major stories from Siberia every year after Christmas? According to Kaminer, no other country in the world offers as much TV coverage of Siberia as Germany.
Kaminer came to Berlin from Moscow in 1990, at the age of 23, and stayed. One of the reasons his books are so popular is that he is so adept at getting to the heart of the German-Russian relationship. Although his prose seems almost childishly clumsy, it is far cleverer and trenchant than many academic treatises.
"For the Germans, the United States is the evil father who ought to be slugged in the face. Russia, on the other hand, is like a little brother to the Germans, one that has to be coddled."
The Germans and the Russians, says Kaminer, are "all sitting in the same kitchen. We have a shared history and we have made serious mistakes repeatedly." He points out that Czar Peter the Great asked the Germans to help Russia modernize. "Germany and Russia, as neighbors of sorts, will always be dependent on one another."
He has always benefited from the Germans' affection for the Russians, says Kaminer. In addition to his traditional monthly Russendisko in Berlin, he also takes the event to other German cities. He has wanted to give up his role as party host for a long time. "I simply can't listen to the music anymore," says Kaminer. "But the Germans happen to like it." They love these evenings, when the vodka flows, the polkas are loud, the dancing is more exuberant than at other parties and the kissing is less inhibited.
Kaminer believes that the pedantic Germans, who are always thinking of the future, have an underlying yearning for the Russian present, for the art of forgetting tomorrow, and for the wild and unruly character of his fellow Russians. "At Russendisko, you don't need insurance to get up onto the tables," says Kaminer.