Merkel in Washington: Does the US Still Care about Germany?

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Washington Thursday evening to receive an award for her contributions to trans-Atlantic relations. But with few politicians in attendance, she might have gotten the feeling that Germany no longer carries its former weight in the US capital.

For a brief moment, the American-German relationship looked just as Germans like to imagine it. Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the stage on Thursday evening at the Library of Congress in the heart of the United States capital, where she had just received the Warburg Prize handed out by the Atlantik Brücke, an important trans-Atlantic organization. The chancellor was clearly moved, her voice full of emotion. And she spoke of a senior US politician.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was at the Library of Congress on Thursday night.
AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was at the Library of Congress on Thursday night.

He is, she said, "the personification of the partnership" between Germany and America. He took time out to meet her, she told the audience, before anyone could imagine that she might one day become chancellor, back when she was just the head of the conservative Christian Democrats. "Who takes the time these days? Who is so inquisitive?" she asked, her voice full of praise.

It was a touching scene, but the man she was speaking of is not, as one might have thought, a high-ranking member of President Barack Obama's administration. Rather, it was the Republican Chuck Hagel.

Hagel's service to trans-Atlantic relations has been consistent and valuable. And even still, whenever there is an important event having to do with Germany or Europe, it is a solid bet that Hagel will be there -- as he was on Thursday night, when he delivered the introduction for Merkel. But when it comes to American politics, Hagel these days is far from the centers of power. He left the Senate, where he represented Nebraska for over a decade, last year. Now, the 62-year-old chairs the board of directors at a foreign policy think tank.

He still does his part for trans-Atlantic relations, but few seem interested in following in his footsteps. On the stage on Thursday night, active politicians were few and far between.

Indeed, there was just a single member of the House of Representatives (out of a possible 435) who bothered to show up to see the German chancellor. Interest for countries like Germany is no longer seen as a way to advance one's career in the US Congress. Those who take an interest in foreign policy have begun looking to Asia first. The only other politician of note at Merkel's reception was Alan Greenspan. But the 83-year-old is also now in retirement.

Europe in the Margins

The Thursday night event perfectly encapsulated the current state of trans-Atlantic relations. While Germany looks to the US, America looks elsewhere. In Washington, the concept of a G-2 is gaining credence, a world order in which the US and China take the lead. Europe -- and Germany -- is on the margins.

Merkel, it became clear during her speech, seems to have resigned herself to the shift. She hardly mentioned Germany -- instead presenting herself as the consummate European. "The Europeans have grown closer together," she said. Often, she went on, Europeans are considered to be somewhat complicated, but that is a misconception. "We have understood that we need to speak with a single voice. We are 500 million people and that is a weight that cannot be ignored." As if sensing that she'd gone a bit too far, she added: "That doesn't mean that Americans should only travel to Brussels now instead of to Germany."

Just how much influence Berlin still has in Washington will become clear on Friday when the chancellor meets with President Obama. The two reportedly plan to discuss, in addition to foreign policy challenges such as Afghanistan and Iran, climate change and new regulations for the global financial markets.

The latter two issues are the sources of significant disagreement between Washington and Berlin. Germans are concerned that Obama -- even as he has made domestic efforts to begin combating climate change -- is uninterested in an international deal. When it comes to the economy, Merkel's recent critique of Washington's loose monetary policy raised many an eyebrow in the US capital.

But in the Library of Congress on Thursday evening, Merkel made just brief mention of the issues in her 30 minute address. "We have never been so close (on climate change)," she praised. "There is still room for convergence, but we are on an excellent path."

On financial oversight, she warned: "Such a crisis cannot be allowed to repeat itself. It is the result of market excesses; we need more regulation." She added that it isn't yet clear whether some banks have understood the kind of damage that the crisis has done. She said nothing about current US monetary policy.

One wonders how much she will have to say on the issue when she and Obama go before the press in the Rose Garden at the White House. Even the smallest gestures of the two politicians will be exhaustively analyzed. It isn't just the German press, after all, which has reported about the not altogether warm relationship between the two leaders. US papers have likewise begun following the story.

Still, on the eve of her meeting with Obama, Merkel's manners were impeccable. "We have had numerous opportunities to talk," she said in reference to the president -- before rattling off the list. She claimed to have followed Obama's initial months in office "with interest" and with "great pleasure." She has an "elementary interest" in his success.

It was a polite thing to say. But it didn't come across as being warm.

If the two are interested in convincing the world once and for all that their relationship is a positive one, a bit of warmth is essential. The kind of warmth she showered on Chuck Hagel on Thursday night.

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