Obama and Merkel The Trans-Atlantic Frenemies

Barack Obama is only passing through Germany on his trip to Europe later this week and does not plan to hold substantial talks with Angela Merkel. The White House views the chancellor as difficult and Germany is increasingly being left out of the loop.

By and Gabor Steingart in Washington


The most meaningful gifts given between world leaders aren't bouquets or porcelain tea services, but rather the flattery they extend to each other. And the American president has showered the German chancellor with a number of highly valued niceties.

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a NATO meeting in April.
DPA

US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a NATO meeting in April.

Indeed, when the president described her approach to political problems as being not only "smart," but also "one of a kind," the chancellor beamed like it was Christmas morning.

There's just one problem with the flattery: The man doing the talking was George W. Bush. But these days, in the Washington of Barack Obama, an entirely different tone is adopted when talking about German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

They consider the German chancellor to be difficult in her personal manner. Her policies they see as hesitant. And when it comes to economic matters -- particularly after the experience in battling the financial crisis -- they don't feel she has much expertise.

Rude and Impolitic

The label "difficult" is attributable to Merkel's refusal to allow then-presidential candidate Obama to hold a speech at the Brandenburg Gate last summer. They also found it rude and impolitic when she didn't accept an invitation to meet with the newly elected president at the White House in April, despite that fact that both sides had been able to find time in their schedules for a meeting.

Merkel eschewed the long flight and the relatively short appointment the president was offering and noted that the two would be meeting in a just a few days at the G-20 summit in London, anyway. No other leader has yet brushed off the new superstar of international politics as disdainfully.

On his trip this week, Germany will just be a stopover for President Obama, squeezed in between his eagerly awaited address to the Muslim world in Cairo and a memorial ceremony commemorating the landing of the Allied troops in Normandy in 1944.

In Germany, Obama plans to visit the former Buchenwald concentration camp and to console American soldiers injured at war who are being treated at the US military hospital in Landstuhl. That schedule doesn't leave much time for comprehensive talks with the chancellor, and efforts by German diplomats to coax the US president to Berlin have failed. Obama, it turns out, can also be touchy.

Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, has had greater success. Urged by the French president, Obama has agreed to extend his stay in France by an additional night. The White House informed the press corps of the unplanned extension of his trip in a letter.

Merkel the Mediator

But Obama's preference doesn't surprise observers of trans-Atlantic developments. "France is in right now. The impression is that Germany isn't really of much use at the moment," says Stephen Szabo, head of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington.

From the get-go, Sarkozy has sought to develop a personal connection with the new man in Washington. Paris also implemented an economic stimulus package worth billions just as Obama had hoped. Meanwhile France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn is also the head of the International Monetary Fund and has been of great importance to Obama in this time of crisis. On top of that, in the view of the Americans, France's decision to return to the NATO command level also underscores Sarkozy's leadership qualities. And, with its new military base in the Persian Gulf, France has become a global player in terms of security policy.

Germany, on the other hand, doesn't have much to offer. Merkel's governing coalition, which pairs her center-right Christian Democrats with the with the center-left social democrats, tends to spend much of its time trying to avoid going at each others' throats. The chancellor, who is up for re-election in September, has been relegated to the role of a mediator.

Even before his inauguration, Merkel made clear that Obama shouldn't expect much by way of additional military aid from Germany for his theaters of war. Now the US is largely taking care of the deployment of troops in Afghanistan itself, and it is currently dispatching 21,000 additional soldiers.

Since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, Germans have been watching over the northern part of Afghanistan. Currently, 4,100 German troops are stationed in the country. But Berlin has categorically rejected missions in the dangerous south, where many British, Canadian and American soldiers are dying. The Germans have also deferred to others in the anti-terror mission on the mountainous border with Pakistan.

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