Loosening Up: A More Equal German-American Relationship

A Commentary By

Obama in Berlin: "We can be a little more informal among friends." Zoom
AP/dpa

Obama in Berlin: "We can be a little more informal among friends."

Obama's Berlin visit highlighted how the relationship between Germany and the United States is changing into a looser affinity of equals. No longer the enthralled little brother, Germany must fill the vacuum on the world stage and act on its newfound stature.

In both Germany and America, it's customary for the dinner host to signal when people are allowed to take off their jackets. If the host forgets, then the guests have to sit and sweat, even during dessert. Those are the rules.

When US President Barack Obama recently gave a speech in Berlin, standing behind bulletproof glass in sweltering 35 degree Celsius (95 degree Fahrenheit) heat, he swiftly removed his jacket. "We can be a little more informal among friends," he said. The hosts were glad and followed his example.

Was it just one of these trivial details that occasionally become headlines and substitute for politics -- or another indication of the changing power balance between the two countries?

There was no pathos to Obama's short, functional and casual first state visit to Berlin, four years after he took office. The Germans voiced their criticism without offending their visitor, but still ensured that he heard it. The term "data protection" didn't sound as guarded as the term "human rights" sounds when the Germans travel to China. Germany and the US are no longer the protectee and the protector, the needy and the benefactor. They are partners who are "truly on an equal footing," as Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle says.

The old cravings for praise and longing to be recognized have evaporated, along with the awe. US security officials wanted to deploy a so-called jammer in Berlin to disable mobile phone networks within a distance of 100 meters (328 feet), but Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) said it wasn't necessary.

A Stalwart Partner

It's normal for ties to evolve and occasionally loosen. Germany no longer needs protection from the Warsaw Pact, and the US no longer pursues strategic interests here in Germany. The wave of German immigrants who helped shape America, D-Day, the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall are all history. Traditions and emotions have faded. Now plans and tactics link the two countries -- and that suits German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Obama just fine.

According to Professor Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Merkel is perceived in the US as "matter-of-fact and serious," and as a woman who "doesn't posture." He says she is "a leader who doesn't just tell you what you want to hear, someone with whom you can do business." The image that Washington has of France, Italy and even Britain is different: volatile, moody and whiny. Germany is seen as a stalwart partner -- and that's worth a great deal.

But it takes two to achieve a change in roles, and this also includes America. "In the 1990s, we thought we had the magic formula for everything. We were rich and invincible, and even Germany was expected to do what we wanted," says Walt. Those days are over. The US is vulnerable. It is losing wars, suffering from unemployment and learning something as European as modesty.

A Relationship of 'True Equals'

"The rattled US perceives Germany as an economically strong, tolerant and thoroughly democratic society. Consequently, the senior and junior partners have found their way to a mature relationship of true equals," says Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor for international politics. And both of these partners need each other to keep pace with Asia and solve tomorrow's global problems. "We're talking about climate change, terror, weapons of mass destruction and migration," says Burns, adding that "no country will be able to achieve anything alone in the future." Anyone who speaks with American observers of German policy senses both sides of this changing relationship: respect coupled with the hope that the Germans will act on their newfound position.

A power vacuum is emerging in international politics, at the United Nations and other institutions -- and this is also something new. The US wants to economize its strength and is pulling back. Newcomers China, Brazil and India act as if they are busy enough with their own growth.

For Germany, this means the beginning of a new era of distinctively European foreign policy. Selling arms but remaining largely on the sidelines is no foreign policy. Part of growing up is accepting the things in life that are uncomfortable. It requires policies -- on the Middle East, on drone warfare and on climate change -- and it requires action.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

Article...
  • For reasons of data protection and privacy, your IP address will only be stored if you are a registered user of Facebook and you are currently logged in to the service. For more detailed information, please click on the "i" symbol.
  • Post to other social networks

Comments
Discuss this issue with other readers!
3 total posts
Show all comments
    Page 1    
1. Changing US Relationship
interested 06/26/2013
The timing is good for Germany to demand a larger stake in bilateral relations with the US, and on the world stage. Furthermore, under Obama, US foreign policy is the weakest it has ever been. An opportunity for Germany.
2. Yes equal, but only they can spy on us
greanknight 06/27/2013
Only a little bit equal. For example, they can spy on all the email of all German citizens, Germany would have big diplomatic problems if Germany spied on all the email of all US citizens.
3. optional
pretextat86 06/27/2013
I find this article exceedingly weird. Indeed, Germany took its "independence" from the US when it opposed the Iraq war, along with France and Russia, both countries being necessaries partners because they had the military power and the permanent seat at the security council. Germany nonetheless still hosts a foreign army on its soil. The timid mention of the spying scandal by Ms. Merkel led to a firm rebuke by Obama, truly the proof of a partner of equals. I am sure how much the US value an ally that is not ready to use arms when necessary, as Germany has evidenced all along the decade. To imply that such an ally might be more valued than the UK or even France is too fool oneself. The mention of Italy is simply ludicrous. What is surprising, though, is that this bit of Schadenfreude comes at a time when Germany is the main obstacle to further European integration. Delusions of grandeur, indeed.
Show all comments
    Page 1    
Keep track of the news

Stay informed with our free news services:

All news from SPIEGEL International
Twitter | RSS
All news from World section
RSS

© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2013
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH



From DER SPIEGEL

Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: A President Visits Berlin
Photo Gallery
Photo Gallery: The First Lady in Berlin


European Partners
Presseurop

Politiken

Corriere della Sera

Report on Cost of Politics

Conte Says Farewell to Juve


Facebook
Twitter