United in Mutual Annoyance: What's Gone Wrong with German-US Relations?

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be fêted in the White House as a recipient of America's highest civilian award. But the honor comes at a time when the US and Germany have struggled to reach agreement on issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy. By SPIEGEL Staff

Trans-Atlantic partners Angela Merkel and Barack Obama: A tone you usually don't hear among friends Zoom
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Trans-Atlantic partners Angela Merkel and Barack Obama: A tone you usually don't hear among friends

There are honors that are not awarded for past accomplishments. Instead, they convey the hope that, at some point in the future, the person honored with the award will actually earn it. Such was the case in 2009, when United States President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At that point, Obama had only been in office a few months and hadn't accomplished anything significant in terms of world peace.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be in Washington to discuss a number of pressing issues with Obama, but she will also use the opportunity to pick up the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, America's highest civilian honor. The only other German politician to receive the award was Helmut Kohl, Germany's chancellor between 1982 and 1998. She will be given the award at a state dinner held at the White House, and Obama will deliver the award speech himself. Merkel will be accompanied by her husband, Joachim Sauer, a rare occurrence meant to highlight the importance of the event.

More than anything, though, Merkel's Freedom Award is freighted with many hopes and expectations. Compared with where things stood just a year ago, people in Washington regard Merkel with much more skepticism today. "The prevailing view in Washington is that friendship with the United States is no longer necessarily Germany's top priority," says Fiona Hill, a Europe expert at the influential Washington-based Brookings Institution. Indeed, Americans want the old Merkel back.

Obama and Merkel have not established a close personal bond, but that's not the only problem. When it comes to important issues, Germany and the United States have never stood farther apart during Merkel's two terms as chancellor as they are at the moment. Merkel's reputation in Washington has been hurt by Germany's decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022, Berlin's abstention in a United Nations Security Council vote on imposing a "no-fly" zone in Libya and the country's economic and financial policies.

Looking at things from the opposite perspective, Obama's standing has also taken a hit in German government circles. In the Chancellery, he is viewed as a president who fails to deliver on lofty pronouncements. Indeed, Merkel does not have faith that he can solve the world's problems. The greatest thing the two governments have in common is their mutual annoyance.

An Awkward Position for Germany

Berlin views Obama's actions related to the Middle East conflict as particularly damaging. The government reportedly believes that Obama's most fundamental misstep came last September when he spoke before the UN General Assembly and predicted that a Palestinian state would be welcomed as a new member of the global community within a year. In Berlin, many feel it only served to foster unreasonable expectations among Palestinians -- and to anger the Israelis.

Merkel also resents Obama for having initially spoken out against intervening in Libya and then allowing pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other advisers to change his mind. She believes that Obama did not give enough thought to the consequences of intervening in Libya and that doing so ended up putting Germany in an awkward position.

In the US, on the other hand, Germany's abstention in the UN Security Council vote was viewed as an effort to shirk its responsibility. "Merkel's Germany is now the most powerful country in Europe," says Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Washington-based Transatlantic Academy, "yet it still wants to act like Switzerland."

Secretary of State Clinton chose Berlin of all places as the venue for making clear just how angry the Americans are at Germany. "The world did not wait for another Srebrenica in a place called Benghazi," Clinton said in April at an event held at the American Academy in the German capital. Measured in diplomatic terms, that was a direct and upfront criticism of Germany's refusal to approve the West's mission against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates minced his words even less. In late April, when Gates first met with newly appointed German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, he indicated that Germany's reputation had been hurt when it found itself in the company of countries like Russia and China among the abstainers during the Security Council vote. You should know that, Gates told his visitor, who was taken aback. Indeed, Gates struck a tone that you usually don't hear among supposedly close friends.

Merkel Has Exhausted Goodwill of American People

Still, it wasn't too long ago that Americans viewed Merkel's Germany as their most important partner in Europe. Unlike her predecessor in office, Gerhard Schröder, Merkel enjoyed a reputation for being pro-American and reliable. Indeed, people in America thought that growing up in communist East Germany had given Merkel a special appreciation for the American understanding of freedom. It even made them more forgiving when Merkel openly criticized US policies, like the operation of the Guantanamo prison camp.

However, as it became clear during the G-8 summit held two weeks ago at the French coastal resort of Deauville, Merkel has exhausted that goodwill. Obama held one-on-one talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the summit's host, and went on to shower him with praise for "the leadership that he's shown on the world stage over the last several years." But he only came face-to-face with Merkel during the general working rounds.

When the G-8 members who had teamed up to confront Gadhafi militarily met to deliberate on the war in Libya, Merkel wasn't at the table. Nor was she among the group of politicians leading the crucial talks with Russia that succeeded in convincing it to join the anti-Gadhafi alliance. As the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung put it, such was "the price of insufficient courage."

Fundamentally Different Approaches

Though they might be less fraught with symbolism, the tensions related to economic policies are hardly less important. One major source of this tension can be found in US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who has hardly let a meeting of the G-20 finance ministers go by without criticizing German export surpluses in the same breath as Chinese trade surpluses. During a meeting held in South Korea in late October, he even tried to have new export-surplus target margins imposed on Germany and China. Only a tour de force by German diplomats succeeded in torpedoing the proposal.

The issue isn't about haggling over numbers. At a basic level, Americans and Germans have different ideas about what post-crisis economic policies should look like. The Germans believe in drastic cuts, painful austerity packages, belt-tightening and structural reforms. In the United States, on the other hand, people are only slowly starting to realize that the country's high mountain of debt might become a problem.

The Americans are demanding that the Germans do something to stimulate domestic demand. But the Germans look with mistrust at the Fed, the American central bank, as it pursues a policy of buying up billions in US Treasury bonds and flooding the market with freshly printed cash. And now the G-20 partners are being asked to use a catalogue of criteria to determine whether countries like Germany are threatening the stability of the global economy by maintaining their foreign trade surpluses.

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