Obama in Berlin: Tearing Down Trade Walls with the US President
The shine has come off Obama's image since he was last in Berlin in 2008. This week's visit is set to be overshadowed by the NSA surveillance scandal, which Chancellor Merkel says she fully intends to address. Free trade will likely top the agenda.
The weather is perfect. After a spring full of rain, Barack Obama and his family will be able to enjoy a balmy summer evening in Berlin. And the city is looking its best too. Even the trunks of the trees out in front of the US Embassy got a new coat of paint last week.
But the Obama who's visiting the German capital this week isn't the same man who received a rapturous reception five years ago, when he gave a speech at the Victory Column during his presidential election campaign in 2008.
The mood these days is far more sober. Obama, it turns out, is not going to revolutionize national security policy. He is the leader of a superpower, one who pursues his country's own interests first and foremost.
His brief visit will be overshadowed by news about the National Security Agency's surveillance of worldwide Internet communications. But Obama is touching down in Germany in the run-up to the general election, and in Berlin, not only the opposition but also Chancellor Angela Merkel's junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, are demanding answers.
His visit is therefore an acid test for US-German ties. It's a chance to revive a flagging relationship and express mutual appreciation. But it's also a chance to ask some searching questions.
While Merkel will certainly bring up the subject of online surveillance and will request transparency, the Chancellery does not want the controversy to spoil the visit. For Merkel, it's a public relations opportunity ahead of the election in September and should not be dominated by disagreements and differences. After all, it's not every day that a US president comes to Berlin.
The Real Message
Furthermore, German-American relations are fundamentally sound. There may be tension, but not enough to cause concern. Even if many Germans are disappointed by what they see as Obama's broken promises during his time in the White House, he remains a president they trust. Some 60 percent of the country is satisfied with his leadership, according to surveys. He has the support of women in particular.
The benefits are not solely to be reaped by Merkel. US presidents appreciate the powerful public relations punch that Berlin affords them. For many Americans, the Brandenburg Gate, where Obama will speak on Wednesday, remains a symbol of freedom and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The speech will be the highlight of his visit, yet this time he will not be cheered on by 200,000 onlookers as he was five years ago. Only 4,000 invited guests are allowed to attend, amid a massive security detail.
Merkel and Obama will be arriving fresh off the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland and issues on their list of talking points are likely to include the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran and the civil war in Syria.
Obama is also expected to reiterate his basic commitment to the planned Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU. The TTIP is set to be a key project in years to come and many hopes are riding on it, especially in Berlin. It might even feature in Obama's speech on Pariser Platz.
It would at the very least be a signal, this vision of a free trade area from Los Angeles to Warsaw. Obama had some initial doubts about its feasibility, publically mentioning the project for the first time in his State of the Union Address in February and then only after comments on the planned Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement (Trans-Pacific FTA).
But by nominating as the US Trade Representative Michael Froman, a fervent supporter of the TTIP, Obama has made his intentions clear.
If the project is to succeed, however, Obama needs to keep publically demonstrating his commitment, says one White House expert. For now, its actual implementation is still a long way off. On both sides of the Atlantic, it continues to draw criticism and spark fears.
High Hopes For Merkel
Some in Europe are doing their part to raise doubts about the project in the US. The French, for example, are insisting that an exception be made for their film industry. "Paris has recently been practically autistic on economic issues, and its blockade could have a ripple effect," says Jack Janes of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. London could conceivably soon call for special provisions as a financial center; German farmers might ask to block genetically modified corn from America.
Who could prevent such a tug of war? The hope in Washington is that this would fall to Merkel and Germany, the new economic heavyweight in Europe. For instance, Berlin could emphasize that as a reaction to the euro crisis, it wants not only to save money but also to boost economic growth, believes Bruce Stokes from the Pew Research Center in Washington. After all, economists expect that the TTIP agreement will cause a growth spurt on both sides of the Atlantic.
Berlin might be the right place to give such a signal. The current trade barriers are akin to walls. Nearly every president who has visited the city has made a reference to its former division: John F. Kennedy 50 years ago with his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech, Ronald Reagan with his "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" appeal and Bill Clinton by saying "Berlin is free all things are possible." Obama himself didn't let his appearance five years ago pass by without a historical reference to the city -- he recalled the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49, when the Allies flew in supplies to break the Soviet blockade of West Berlin.
Berlin and the Germans are ready.
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