By Roland Nelles and Gregor Peter Schmitz in Washington
Black, of course. Angela Merkel was wearing a black evening gown when she arrived at the White House on Tuesday evening for the state banquet hosted by United States President Barack Obama.
When she stepped out of her limousine at the main entrance, she and her husband Joachim Sauer were received by the president and First Lady Michelle Obama. "You look wonderful this evening," Obama said to the German chancellor as he saw her flowing dress. There were kisses all around; the party could begin.
In Merkel's current political reality, there are very few pleasurable moments. Her party is doing poorly in the public opinion polls, her government has shown a preference for bickering over policymaking and the European common currency is in trouble. But all of that was forgotten on Tuesday evening in Washington. Merkel, after all, was in town to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the US. She is the first German to receive the award since Helmut Kohl in 1999, and follows in the footsteps of such luminaries as Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela.
The banquet came after a day of smiles and ceremony. At a press conference earlier in the day, a journalist from Germany had attempted to darken the mood. When, he asked, would Obama finally make a trip to Berlin as US president? Obama countered easily. "The last time I was there we had a lot of fun," he said, referring to his 2008 speech in Berlin as a presidential candidate. "And I'm sure that I'll have a wonderful time the next time I'm there as well."
The Old Merkel
Merkel grinned, and then made a sly, playful reference to her refusal to allow then presidential election candidate Obama to speak at Berlin's central historical site in 2008. "I can promise that the Brandenburg Gate will be standing for some time to come," she said.
It was the old Merkel. The looseness that had been absent in her dealings with the US was back. Indeed, the pompous visit seemed in part an effort to counter those who would argue that the trans-Atlantic relationship was in crisis. Obama's "whole public day revolves around her," the influential website Politico marvelled.
Obama's official welcoming of Merkel on the South Lawn of the White House seemed designed to set the tone, and push past disagreements into the background -- including a 19-gun salute. "Chancellor Merkel, herzlich Willkommen," Obama said in German. "Germany, at the heart of Europe, is one of our strongest allies. And Chancellor Merkel is one of my closest global partners."
He added: "Madam Chancellor ... it is obvious that neither of us looks exactly like the leaders who preceded us. But the fact that we can stand here today as president of the United States and as chancellor of a united Germany is a testament to the progress, the freedom, that is possible in our world."
Merkel was all too happy to join the love fest. "I am indeed delighted ... to be back in Washington, D.C. I'm certain this day today shall be ... (an) unforgettable moment."
A Trans-Atlantic Project
But what will remain from the visit aside from a collection of nice images? There is no shortage of good intentions. Merkel insisted that "Germany is showing, will be showing, that it is responsible and committed to the Libyan cause." The president spoke of "full and robust German support." The implication, as both made clear, was that even if Berlin chose to abstain from the United Nations resolution which authorized the use of military force in Libya, Germany will help in the country once the guns have fallen silent. "There's going to be a lot of work to do when Gadhafi does step down," Obama said.
It is exactly the kind of trans-Atlantic project that Roger Cohen mentioned in his International Herald Tribune column on the eve of Merkel's arrival. "The United States is no longer interested in Europe per se," he wrote. "That's not a bad thing. It reflects the fact that Europe is whole, free and at peace."
Now, though, is the time to find a common issue or project, he wrote. Especially given that Germany under Merkel's leadership "is looking inward," as Charles Kupchan, a Germany expert at Georgetown University, puts it. Rather than focusing on foreign policy leadership, Berlin is instead busy with the euro crisis and the frustration of its citizens about the need to bail out Greece.
Libya could represent a new beginning, as could the global economy. Collective responsibility and mutual dependence: The concepts were emphasized by both Merkel and Obama. "It's very important for folks to remember how close we came to complete disaster," Obama said, in reference to the economy.
Still, as the tone of the press conference made clear, when it comes to important issues such as Afghanistan, Libya or the International Monetary Funds, the chancellor and the president can make little headway on their own. The time when Europe and the US could make important decisions alone have passed -- today we live in a G-20 world instead of one led by a G-2.
A Challenge to the Status Quo
There are plenty of examples. In the search for a replacement for Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the head of the IMF, Merkel would like to see the French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde take the job -- even as the chancellor recognizes the need for Europe to ultimately relinquish its hold on the IMF top spot. The US has avoided getting involved in the debate. Mexican central bank governor Agustin Carstens has thrown his hat into the ring, a challenge to the status quo in international institutions.
When it comes to Libya and the so-called Arab spring, even the US is unsure how to proceed with the NATO mission in North Africa. The US Congress is becoming uneasy and Obama has been accused of having a double standard because the US and the international community have ignored the situation in Syria, where dictator Bashir Assad has violently attacked demonstrators. The German abstention in the UN Security Council seems almost prophetic in this light.
And in Afghanistan, the US has ceased making demands that Europe step up its engagement in the war-torn country. Indeed, Washington itself is considering a quicker withdrawal than originally planned. "We wish to go in together, out together," Merkel said on Tuesday. "Afghanistan will need our support, however, in the long run. So we will not abandon them." But the end of the Afghanistan engagement will also mark the end of another project which bound Europe to America.
There are, in short, several new, external limits imposed on the once limitless trans-Atlantic friendship. It is, perhaps, even time for the allies "to see other people," as the Americans say. The US is focused on the Pacific region, as are the Germans. Merkel herself just finished off a visit to India. China continues to gain influence.
Furthermore, the US is beginning to focus increasingly on the upcoming presidential campaign -- even when it comes to the relationship to Europe. Obama's recent trip saw him visit Ireland and Poland. Voters with roots in those two countries play an important role in the US electorate.
It is unlikely that Obama will have much time for more trips abroad in the coming months. A new survey published in the Washington Post shows that Americans are unhappy with Obama's handling of the economy. Almost 60 percent of those surveyed said that the economic recovery had not yet begun. Such numbers do not speak well to the president's chances for re-election.
"The upcoming campaign clearly trumps any foreign policy considerations at the White House," says William Drozdiak, head of the American Council on Germany. State banquets and medal ceremonies, he added, don't change that.
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