Obama and Merkel were all smiles when they met in Berlin last July. But now the German government is split over how to deal with the new US administration.
But this time the country is not divided into East and West Germany, but between Merkel's Germany and Steinmeier's Germany. And when it comes to their relationship with the new America, these two Germanys could not be more different.
Chancellor Angela Merkel takes a reserved view of Obama, waiting to see what his administration's policies will look like. There is not even a trace of enthusiasm for the man on whom the world's hopes are now pinned. Merkel is not prepared to quickly accommodate the Americans on the first concrete issue for trans-Atlantic relations, namely the acceptance of detainees from Guantanamo.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on the other hand, is the president of Germany's Obama fan club. His enthusiasm knows no bounds. Steinmeier indicated right away that Germany would accept detainees from Guantanamo.
And so Obama has a problem: figuring out which Germany he will be dealing with.
The new chapter in German-American relations has gotten off to a bumpy start. Despite the friendly tone of trans-Atlantic telephone conversions in recent days -- Merkel with Obama and Steinmeier with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- Germany is still a puzzle for the new US administration. Which party in Germany's grand coalition government of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) will call the shots in this election year, and what direction will they take?
This question will also be of interest to Vice President Joseph Biden when he arrives in Germany this week to attend the Munich security conference, which begins on Friday.
For the time being, however, the new America has sounded gentle and thoughtful. Last Monday, when Obama spoke with Merkel, there were two new aspects to the conversation: Obama's tone, and the silences in between his sentences. The young president spoke and listened. "The White House of Barack Obama is a house with two buttons, not just a 'send' button," says Jackson Janes, an expert on Germany at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. America, he says, no longer wants to be "the skunk at the garden party."
Current Trouble Spots
Speaking in English, Merkel and Obama addressed the world's current trouble spots, Iran, Afghanistan and Wall Street, in quick succession. At every turn, Obama made it clear that his goal was to persuade and that he had no intention of inundating Merkel with demands. There was not a single demand in the 25-minute telephone conversation, Merkel later told members of her staff, not even for more German troops in Afghanistan.
In other words, the conversation wasn't nearly as painful as might have been expected. In the preceding week, Merkel had reacted testily when asked about Obama. The German chancellor suspects that the enthusiasm of many Germans for Obama is really an overly-hasty expression of admiration for the new president, who -- so people believe -- has got to be better than his predecessor. Obama, in her view, ought to produce some results first.
It has long irked her that all the euphoria over Obama goes hand-in-hand with criticism of Germany's supposedly dull and small-minded politicians, criticism which is aimed mainly at her, which is of course terrible in her eyes, and at Steinmeier, which is not half as bad.
The truth is that Merkel is a confirmed proponent of the trans-Atlantic alliance. She must be careful, however, not to allow her mistrust of political luster to diminish her standing in a new global era. And now Merkel is eyeing Steinmeier suspiciously as he cozies up to Obama. The foreign minister is fascinated by Obama's ability to get ordinary people enthused about politics. A relatively staid man, Steinmeier has little use for the pomp and circumstance of an American inauguration, and he knows that he will never be a German Obama. Nevertheless, he believes that the German political establishment should take a page from the charismatic American's book if it hopes to instill enthusiasm for politics in frustrated voters once again.
After Steinmeier's occasionally testy relationship with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the tone of his first conversation with his new counterpart was decidedly more positive. On her first day in her new job, Hillary Clinton discussed the Middle East, disarmament and Russia with the German foreign minister. "We have to be tough, Frank," Rice would have said in similar situations. For Steinmeier, the fact that Clinton managed to do without such calls for a display of toughness was a sign that the relationship is on the mend.
Perhaps he hopes that it will help his chances of being elected chancellor if he can portray himself as the new US president's best friend, especially now that he can include Obama, a Democrat, in a global social democratic movement, whereas Merkel's CDU feels traditionally aligned with the Republicans, now contaminated by the Bush era.
The Big Question
But those would be the considerations of people running for office, and they would seem petty compared with the real issues of the day. In her conversation with Obama, Merkel was relieved to hear him speak out in favor of free trade. And his commitment to fair competition seemed believable. But can Obama translate this stance into policy? This is the big question, from the German standpoint.
A bipartisan coalition of politicians is taking shape in the US Congress that seeks to include a "buy American" clause in the government's economic stimulus program, to encourage the purchase of American products.
This would affect all funds within the program that are not earmarked for food stamps, health insurance policies and tax cuts. At issue is a sum of about $300 billion (230 billion) that would be invested, in the coming years, in such projects as additional sewage treatment plants, new railroads and bridges, upgrading the US electrical grid, wind farms and solar panels.
A growing number of members of Congress want to impose a restriction on these investments that would require builders and developers to buy almost all materials in the United States, benefiting American businesses like steel mills and gravel pits. Senators on the both sides of the aisle, like North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, are at the forefront of the initiative. They argue that the plan is not protectionism but self-defense. "It's pretty hard for anyone to look at our trade situation and suggest that we are being unfair," says Dorgan.
Executives with major exporting companies, on the other hand, are struggling against the growing grassroots movement for more protectionism. This plan would be immensely dangerous for world trade and is incompatible with the statutes of the World Trade Organization (WTO), say officials at General Electric and in the aerospace industry.
It would be especially painful for Germany, the world's largest exporter. In 2008, German companies supplied goods worth about 70 billion ($91 billion) to the United States. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last Friday, Merkel showed that she plans to take the new president at his word. "We need an open world economy," she told the group, adding that she now views Washington's moves to subsidize its ailing auto industry with some suspicion. "Such phases cannot be allowed to last very long," Merkel warned.