Germans Hope for a New America: Will Berlin's Lovefest with Obama be Shortlived?

By and Konstantin von Hammerstein

Barack Obama's charisma and youth have won the Democratic presidential candidate many fans in Berlin. Republican candidate John McCain, on the other hand, is seen as a choleric hardliner. But neither of them would cozy up to the German government.

Presumptive US Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama during an election rally in South Dakota: Germans are now eager to discard their anti-Americanism.
REUTERS

Presumptive US Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama during an election rally in South Dakota: Germans are now eager to discard their anti-Americanism.

It's a dream, nothing but a dream. And yet it has taken hold in many places around the German capital, in the offices of cabinet ministers and members of parliament, in strategy sessions at party headquarters, around conference tables at the editorial offices of newspapers and magazines, and even in a few of the countless offices of Berlin's federal government bureaucracy.

The dream goes something like this: What if just a small fragment of the American presidential election primary were to spill over into Germany? The enthusiasm, for example, and the vitality, energy and drama that the world's oldest democracy has presented to the global public for months? And what if German politicians would exude just a smidgen of the youthfulness and spirit of optimism that Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, seems to have in abundance?

In the grey bleakness exuded by Berlin's grand coalition government, these daydreams thrive like marsh marigolds on a wetland meadow. Could anyone in the German capital imagine enthusiastic teenage girls wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the likeness of Ronald Pofalla , the general secretary of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), screeching as he takes to the stage? Or newspaper columnists spending time discussing the washboard stomach of a chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD)?

Obamamania has gripped large segments of Germany's political establishment and population. At the SPD's "Future Congress" in Nuremberg, General Secretary Hubertus Heil, behaving like a nightclub entertainer, stood in front of his fellow party members and urged them to repeat after him in English: "Yes, we can!" But the audience's "yees ve ken" response was tepid at best. After a second half-hearted attempt, Heil was saved by the music, as it drowned out the room's embarrassingly listless refrain.

In an editorial in last Friday's edition of the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper titled "What the conservatives Must Do Now," former Bavarian conservative leader Edmund Stoiber gave his party some unsolicited advice. America, the Bavarian politician wrote, is "a marvellous example of the power of democracy." In SPIEGEL, CDU parliamentary leader Norbert Röttgen raved about Obama who, as he said, had generated a mood "that makes it possible to believe in politics."

Obama as Popular as The Dalai Lama

"Germany is Obama country," says Karsten Voigt, Berlin's coordinator for German-American cooperation, while Constanze Stelzenmüller of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin jokes: "About the only other person capable of generating this much passion and adoration here in Germany is the Dalai Lama."

Despite concerted fence-mending between President George W. Bush and Chancellor Angela Merkel in recent years, Germany is yearning for a new, better era of trans-Atlantic relations.
DDP

Despite concerted fence-mending between President George W. Bush and Chancellor Angela Merkel in recent years, Germany is yearning for a new, better era of trans-Atlantic relations.

In a head-to-head contest with John McCain, the designated Republican presidential candidate, 67 percent of Germans would vote for Obama. The African American senator from Chicago declared himself the winner of the Democratic primary campaign last week. According to Voigt, support for Obama extends well into the conservative wing of Germany's political establishment. McCain's support is confined to a few diehard NATO supporters at most, says Voigt.

Despite all the enthusiasm for Obama, Germans know little about his foreign policy ideas. What does this man stand for, this man who has captivated millions with his charisma and his sonorous voice? Does he have enough experience to live up to the enormous challenges of the office? Will he try to make up for his lack of experience by venturing on bold foreign policy manoeuvers?

Which direction will the last remaining superpower take if Obama or McCain moves into the White House in January? Most of all, how will it affect the Germans, a majority of whom, according to a survey conducted by leading German polling organization Forsa, see current US president George W. Bush as the greatest threat to world peace?

After seven years under Bush, years that have included the Iraq invasion, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the dominant Western power's standing in the world has hit a new low. Germans have long had an ambivalent relationship with their powerful friends across the Atlantic and now seem eager to discard their anti-Americanism. But there is good reason to suggest that there is a clear divide between German hopes and reality.

McCain's positions, at least, are well known. The Republican is a regular guest at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, a talking shop for the trans-Atlantic community. In Munich McCain, a Vietnam veteran, has always made it clear that he is a steadfast supporter of NATO and of close cooperation with the US's longstanding partners.

McCain's Temper Tantrums

But the Republican candidate is also known for his temper. His fits of rage are legendary. In February 2006, he and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier became embroiled in a heated argument in a backroom at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich. Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, had suggested that Russia be treated as a difficult but indispensable partner. McCain, one of Moscow's most vocal critics, exploded and began shouting at Steinmeier. To this day, none of the diplomats present at the meeting cares to repeat McCain's choice of words. "It wasn't in keeping with the rules of politeness."

Republican presidential candidate John McCain is known for his fits of rage.
AP

Republican presidential candidate John McCain is known for his fits of rage.

McCain's outbursts have long been the subject of ridicule among Americans attending the Munich conference. Once, when the senator arrived late for a breakfast meeting, a fellow American said: "Who do you think he declared war on this time?" And when defense experts discussed a proposal to keep missiles and nuclear warheads stored in separate locations in the future, there were those in his entourage who joked that the purpose of separate storage was to prevent a fit of rage by a President McCain from triggering a nuclear attack.

Obama, on the other hand, is as fascinating to German politicians as a mirage. He seems promising from afar, and yet no one knows what he actually stands for. In fact, hardly anyone knows him at all. Although he is a member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has avoided contact with his foreign counterparts in the past.

Steinmeier is one of a handful of German politicians who have spoken with the candidate, but only for a 15-minute telephone conversation. Nevertheless, his brief chat with the Democratic candidate qualifies Steinmeier as an Obama expert. Since then, his staff has raved about what they call the American's "altitude." They say that although his questions about world affairs were abstract, at least he seemed well informed. Besides, they add, Obama is apparently willing to call major tenets of US foreign policy into question.

Both Obama and McCain Will Make Demands

But which ones? If McCain wins the election, most German foreign policy experts predict trouble ahead for Germany. If Obama wins there will also be friction, but no one knows where and on what fronts.

Whoever moves into the White House next January will base his decisions on American interests, not on personal preferences. And he will also expect allegiance, although the two candidates will differ in terms of their willingness to make concessions on major world issues, including reconstruction in Iraq, humanitarian intervention in Africa and the fight against Islamists in Afghanistan.

For the Germans, Obama could in fact prove to be the more difficult partner. "As an idealist, he will hope -- and rightfully so -- that an appeal to the Europeans' sense of responsibility will work," says Stelzenmüller at the German Marshall Fund. That could include demands for more European missions in Africa. "Obama is convinced that there is a genocide going on in Darfur, and that it has to be stopped," says Werner Hoyer, a foreign policy expert and member of Germany's opposition Free Democratic Party (FDP).

The Germans are particularly concerned about Afghanistan. Analysts in Berlin believe that both Obama and McCain would be more adamant than the current president in calling for the German military, the Bundeswehr, to participate in combat missions in the country's more volatile south. "A US president won't be able to spend months with kid gloves on," says Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a foreign policy expert and member of the Bavarian Christian Social Union party. "We'll reach breaking point by next spring's NATO summit at the latest." According to Guttenberg, a President Obama would also make abundantly clear what the US means by multilateralism -- that the major European nations should take more responsibility for joint military operations.

Politicians in Berlin believe that perhaps the biggest difference between the candidates would be in their respective approaches to authoritarian regimes and organizations. The Germans see McCain as being both more confrontational with major powers Russia and China and more uncompromising in dealing with rogue states like Iran, Syria and Cuba. "It would be horrible," says one of Steinmeier's close associates, "they're just looking for a new adversary."

Trans-Atlantic Ties 'Couldn't Survive Another Neocon'

The German foreign minister suspects that neoconservative luminaries like Robert Kagan are behind McCain's hard-line foreign policy ideas. The American intellectual is widely viewed as one of the architects of the Iraq war. In his latest book, "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," Kagan describes Russia and China as the global adversaries of the West.

He calls for a "concert of democracies" connecting the EU, Japan, India and Australia to the US. "The global competition between democratic and autocratic governments will become a dominant feature of the 21st-century world," writes Kagan.

The powers that rule Russia, he writes, wanted to annul the order brought about after the Cold War and establish Russia as the dominant power in Eurasia. He accuses the Chinese of wanting to divide the world into two geopolitical spheres: a Euro-Atlantic sphere dominated by the United States and an Asian sphere under Chinese leadership.

Many foreign policy experts in Berlin are alarmed. Rolf Mützenich, a Social Democratic member of parliament, warns against the formation of an "exclusive club" of democrats, and his colleague in the FDP, Werner Hoyer, already fears the worst: "Our community of values would not survive another two legislative periods with the neo-conservatives."

Eckart von Klaeden, a parliamentarian with the CDU, sees their fears as overblown, arguing that closer cooperation among democracies is, after all, "not some horrific scenario, but a matter of course."

German politicians like Klaeden point to the behavior of Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in Berlin last week. Instead of showing his claws, the new man from Moscow came across as more of a Russian teddy bear. Unlike his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, Medvedev highlighted the shared aspects of German and Russian history and values.

Obama 'on Similar Wavelength' as Germans

Instead of furiously railing against NATO expansion, the recognition of Kosovo and the installation of a US missile defense system in Europe, Medvedev cautiously suggested that the West take a "breather." At the same time, he suggested that all European nations sign a joint security treaty. "After centuries of isolation," Medvedev said, "Russia has now come in out of the cold."

From Berlin's perspective, McCain's conflict-laden rhetoric jars with Medvedev's tones which many in Berlin are so anxious to believe. Obama's policy of the outstretched hand is more likely to satisfy German longings.

Obama's style would suit Merkel as much as it does her foreign minister. She has let it be known that she could easily imagine cooperation with the Democratic candidate. Steinmeier, speaking at Harvard University, revealed where his sympathies lie when he repeated Obama's campaign slogan, "Yes, we can."

Obama is clearly Berlin's candidate of choice. Of course, the man from Illinois would also be a "demanding president," says the FDP's Hoyer, echoing the consensus of many experts. Hoyer believes that Obama will force the Europeans' hand here and there, but that electing the Democrat as president would be "the first opportunity, after the Bush years, to re-establish the West." Besides, Hoyer adds, "he would be a president of whom the Germans could say he's on a similar wavelength."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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