On April 14, German Ambassador Peter Ammon was at the National Mall to announce the reopening of the German-American Friendship Garden after an extensive restoration. He stood behind a wooden podium in a large tent organized by the embassy, flanked by German and American flags. An orchestra played the national anthems of both countries while, behind him, the White House was bathed in the glow of Washington's spring sun.
The event was meant to improve German-American relations. The Americans donated the garden in 1983, but it somehow remained a patchwork over the years. Ammon planted sage in freshly tilled soil, a medicinal plant that can be used to help treat colds. The departing German ambassador said the ceremony was "highly symbolic".
A Difficult Crossroads
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to Washington at the end of this week, Ammon's successor Peter Wittig will already have taken up residence in the US capital. It's a coincidence, but a significant one, because German-American relations are at a difficult crossroads, damaged by the NSA spying scandal surrounding the monitoring of Merkel's cell phone, mired in complicated negotiations over the trans-Atlantic free-trade agreement (TTIP) and challenged by Moscow's new efforts to shift the balance of global power.
When she arrives in Washington, though, the German chancellor will have at least one reason to be thankful to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The escalation of the Ukraine crisis will allow her to demonstrate a sense of trans-Atlantic unity in a relationship otherwise currently marred by deep misunderstanding. "The East-West crisis could come in handy," says one Merkel advisor.
During Merkel's visit, Obama is likely to warn the German public about the danger of inaction or political paralysis toward Russia, says Julianne Smith, the former deputy security advisory to US Vice President Joe Biden. She says Obama is also likely to describe the chancellor as an "impressive leader" or a "close friend," as he is often inclined to do.
In the context of the Ukraine crisis, those statements may be genuine. Many in Washington view Merkel as someone with a direct line of communication to the Russian president. Given that German-American relations currently comprise the core of the trans-Atlantic relationship, Merkel is coming as the most powerful German chancellor ever to have visited Washington, says Robert Kimmitt, who served as US Ambassador to Germany under President George Bush, Sr.
Expectations Low for Answers about NSA Spying
That won't help her, however, when it comes to the NSA spying affair. Obama moved to bury the dispute after imposing some limits on the US intelligence services in mid-January. He did so without asking any fundamental questions about the ways in which the American agencies collect mass data.
Annette Heuser -- the head of the Washington office of the Bertelsmann Foundation, the non-profit think tank affiliated with the German multimedia conglomerate -- says the monitoring of the chancellor was a "breach in trust" that is still affecting relations. "The Obama administration still hasn't grasped that if it doesn't clear up the issue, it will remain a lasting burden to its relations with Germany." In order to demonstrate trans-Atlantic unity to Moscow, she says, Merkel will need "concrete commitments from the president on strong limits for NSA spying activities in Germany."
Instead, government sources believe her approach won't go beyond indignation -- because of the conflict with Russia.
Christoph Heusgen, Merkel's foreign policy advisory, is currently discussing possible wording with his colleague Susan Rice at the White House for a joint press conference. When asked how far the US president is expected to go in his explanation of the surveilling of the chancellor's cell phone, sources in Berlin soberly respond, "He won't say much."
Obama and Merkel want to officially launch a "structured dialogue" -- a gesture that's unlikely to have much practical value. As part of the program, government officials, members of parliament, business representatives and experts in various fields from both countries would meet regularly to address issues relating to freedom, security, civil rights and "big data." German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and US Secretary of State John Kerry agreed to the format a short time ago and a representative of the government in Washington recently visited Berlin for the first talks to set up the dialogue.
No progress, however, is expected towards the "no spy" deal Merkel had pledged to voters as part of her re-election campaign last summer. Merkel personally wants -- in her typically pragmatic and nonchalant way -- to put the NSA affair aside. The Ukraine crisis could help her to do this: "Now there are more important things to address than the NSA stories," government sources said.
In addition to addressing the Ukraine crisis, Merkel wants to map out common ground as negotiations move forward on the trans-Atlantic free trade zone. Merkel is only planning one public speech during her visit, and she will use it to promote TTIP before members of the US Chamber of Commerce.
Karel de Gucht, the European Union's trade commissioner, has also recognized this, and he too would rather have free trade than the NSA scandal at the top of the agenda. Although he says he can sympathize with the chancellor's anger over the spying on her cell phone, he points out that "a strong export economy like Germany would especially profit from TTIP."
"I assume that she will send a clear message about the need for this free-trade agreement during her visit to Washington at the beginning of May," he says. "One can't forget that she created this idea -- after all, she laid the foundations seven years ago."