German Chancellor Angela Merkel is traveling around the United States this week. She loves the country, but she has a few problems with its president, Barack Obama. Her political style is vastly different from that of the US president, but she also has something else to contend with: Washington's disregard for and attempts to dominate Europeans.
When Merkel is no longer Germany's chancellor, she will fly to America. She will land in California, rent a car, drive to the beach and gaze out at the Pacific Ocean. That, at least, was her plan in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and she still clings to that vision: America, the Pacific and a long road trip across the entire country.
Merkel is in the United States this week, as chancellor, and she will hardly be in a position to satisfy her wanderlust. But at least she'll see the Pacific, when she visits Los Angeles and San Francisco after spending time in Washington.
She is traveling to a country whose stunningly beautiful aspects hold an almost childlike fascination for Merkel, but whose political realities represent a cause for concern. During her visit, she will encounter representatives of opposing camps in the country's deeply divided political landscape. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, Merkel will meet with protagonists of the American dream, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, filmmakers at Warner Brothers and some of the Silicon Valley's best and brightest.
Tensions with Obama, But No Open Quarrels
But first she'll be in Washington, where Obama runs the show. She will see him at a nuclear summit attended by 40 other heads of state. The two years in which Merkel has interacted with Obama have been filled with tension, even if there has never been an open quarrel between the two leaders. He is precisely the president she didn't want to see in office, because he is the antithesis of her. This sentiment has been palpable from the very beginning, and it hasn't gone away.
But Obama isn't the only source of Merkel's concerns about America. She is also vexed over Washington's policy, which fluctuates between disregard for and dominance of the Germans. This isn't just the result of the president's personal characteristics, but of the respective roles of the two countries: the United States, a superpower being challenged by China, and Germany, which wants to be a medium power, but only plays this role economically, not politically. Merkel is confronted with this underlying conflict again and again.
The chancellor was last in Washington on Nov. 3, 2009. She was there to give a speech to the US Congress, a rare honor for a foreign leader, and when she was responding to a journalist's questions shortly before the speech, something happened that almost never happens to her: she swallowed. She had a lump in her throat, and it rendered her speechless for a few moments.
'Nothing Inspires Me More Than the Power of Freedom'
She was excited, because this speech meant a lot to her. Then she stood up in front of the assembled US representatives and senators and said that because of the Berlin Wall, America had long been "the land of unlimited opportunity" for her. "I had to create my own picture of the United States from films and books, some of which were smuggled in from the West by relatives," she said. "I was passionate about the American dream -- the opportunity for everyone to be successful, to make it in life through their own personal effort."
At the time, she wore Levi's jeans that an aunt had sent her from the West, and because she longed for freedom, she also longed to see the country that had come to embody freedom, the United States. Before the joint session of the US Congress, she said: "There is still nothing that inspires me more, nothing that spurns me on more, nothing that fills me more with positive feelings than the power of freedom."
When Merkel lived in ossified, ailing East Germany, she imagined the West as a realm of efficiency and fantasy, imbued with a spirit of optimism. After the fall of the wall, she was disappointed by the Federal Republic of Germany, by its bureaucracy, sedateness and fearfulness. She sees the United States as a country that corresponds more closely to notions she once had of the West.
This is partly because she perceives her own life as a typically American, rags-to-riches story. She too has succeeded in making the unlikely journey from East German citizen to German chancellor, partly as a result of luck and partly through her "own hard work."
She would take a vacation there now if she could. But as chancellor, Merkel has to be readily available at all times, and given the time difference of six to nine hours, she feels that that is something she cannot guarantee. Instead, she experiences the country vicariously by barraging anyone who has just spent some time in the United States with questions.
Merkel Favored Clinton out of 'Female Solidarity'
Ironically, this country she has always yearned for often gives her the cold shoulder. Although her speech before the US Congress was met with enthusiastic applause, what she couldn't see was that a number of very young people were clapping at the back of the room. Members of Congress had instructed their staffs to fill the back rows, because there had been relatively little interest in attending the chancellor's speech.
Shortly before her departure, she was snubbed when General Motors announced that it preferred not to sell its subsidiary, German automaker Opel. In the preceding months, Merkel had spent countless hours trying to organize a sale.
But for Merkel, the hardest pill to swallow is that America, her paradise, has brought her President Barack Obama. In the election, she favored his opponent Hillary Clinton, out of "female solidarity." Besides, Obama poses a threat to the view, so useful to Merkel, that politics cannot be fun and inspiring.
Her approach to politics, at any rate, isn't. Merkel, who can be very entertaining privately, runs her country with a calculated blandness -- a deliberate effort not to upset anyone or rock the boat. This too is based on a well thought out script, but it is not one that would be of any interest to Hollywood, which she will also visit this week. Her script is more suitable for the kind of late-night television program likely to put its audience to sleep.
When Obama conducted his election campaign in 2008, the sedate Germans were flabbergasted. This was politics? A man speaking with passion and convincing half of the world that change was imminent? He offered American voters a vision that included groundbreaking healthcare reforms and a world without nuclear weapons. It was perfectly staged, and instead of calculated blandness Obama showed calculated charisma. Almost three-quarters of Germans wanted him to become president.
Merkel sensed that some of the praise for Obama reflected criticism of her. Her fellow conservative Christian Democrat Norbert Röttgen, the current environment minister, said at the time: "He has created a mood that makes it possible to have faith in politics. That's worth a lot more than a tax concept or a plan to reform health insurance, because it creates a context and politicizes in the best sense of the word."
A Testy Reaction When Asked about Obama
At the time, she revealed a rarely seen trait: irritability. Whenever she was asked about Obama, her reaction was usually testy. She said that he had been all talk and no action, and she developed a position that seemed advantageous to her at the time, portraying Obama as a glib speaker and herself as a practitioner of power politics who was at least getting a few things done.
When Merkel watched Obama's inauguration on television, she was so transfixed that she kept a helicopter waiting. She has a soft spot for historic moments, and she didn't want to miss seeing the first black man being sworn in as president of the United States. She too is a member of this club of "firsts," being both the first East German and the first woman to become Germany's chancellor. She doesn't have the feeling that she has to look up to the president.
Merkel met with Obama several times after his inauguration, and it was soon clear that the two leaders weren't exactly hitting it off. Most of the world was pleased to see former President George W. Bush go, but Merkel is one of the few to miss him a little.
Merkel has a way of quietly sweet-talking many of her counterparts around the world. This is particularly effective with older men, who like to use their charm on Merkel but fail to notice as she gently reels them in.
This strategy was very effective with Bush. Merkel put up with the indignity of Bush massaging her neck or putting his arm around her. She invited him to attend a barbecue in Trinwillershagen, a town in her electoral district in northeastern Germany, and the two politicians were always ready to play the game of an older gentleman courting a younger woman.
When Merkel's advisers list her best foreign policy moments today, they include the 2007 G-8 summit in Heiligendamm and the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. In Heiligendamm, she wheedled a small concession on climate change out of Bush, and in Bucharest she resisted his pressure to promptly approve NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.
Obama Wastes No Time on Small Talk
Her approach doesn't work with Obama. He isn't part of the generation of charming older men, and he has a very direct, almost brusque, way of making policy. He doesn't waste much time on small talk, his day is tightly scheduled, and he makes sure that his counterparts know this. He also has little concern for protocol. During a meeting in Dresden, he surprised Merkel by asking her why she was opposed to Turkey being admitted to the European Union. The topic was not on the agenda.
When asked about Obama at the beginning of the year, Merkel replied as she had in the past, noting that he hadn't actually achieved anything yet. But now Obama has pushed healthcare reform through the House of Representatives and signed a nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia. He has disappointed on other fronts, but it can hardly be said that Obama the gifted speaker has failed in the arena of power politics.
This invalidates Merkel's position, now that Obama has demonstrated that power politics and inspiring speeches are compatible. So why shouldn't the same thing work for her, particularly as she hasn't moved any mountains as a practitioner of power politics?
Obama has set an example of how successful personal commitment and a strong sense of self can be. All it takes is the courage to commit to an issue, even it means running the risk of it becoming a major defeat.
American politics is a little like the film "High Noon." It requires a protagonist, a few decent shootouts and, finally, a showdown on Main Street, one in which there is a winner and a loser. Although Obama spent a long time negotiating and making compromises to get his healthcare reform bill passed, he was still on pins and needles in the end, when it came down to the vote and he had no idea how it would turn out. He also accepted the fact that some would hate him for his policies.
A similar situation is inconceivable for Merkel. She would negotiate Main Street to death, and the combatants would eventually lay down their arms, half satisfied and half dazed. Not even during the election campaign, the classic dueling scenario in politics, did she step into the streets with her guns loaded. Instead, she continued to pursue her program to promote a general feeling of fatigue -- which, unfortunately, also includes political fatigue.
An Individualist vs. a Collectivist
Obama's approach to politics is more individualistic. He too is dependent on an army of advisers, but when push comes to shove, his will and charisma are crucial to making decisions happen. Merkel takes a collectivist approach. She identifies the goals of other participants, blends them with her own needs and turns the whole thing into a fail-safe policy that allows her to remain popular.
This week, Merkel would like to have been able to tell Obama that Germany was willing to accept three presumably innocent detainees from Guantanamo. But now she is wavering in the face of resistance from governors and her party's parliamentary group.
Once again, she will presumably show up in Washington empty-handed. It wasn't much different in January, when she called the president to tell him that Germany was going to send an additional 500 soldiers to Afghanistan, possibly as many as 850, but no more than that. Her pledge wasn't met with great enthusiasm from Obama who, after announcing Washington's deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, would have liked to see a stronger commitment from the Germans.
At the moment, the partners on both sides of the Atlantic are disappointed with each other. Whenever the Americans want something from the Germans, they are guaranteed to be turned down: on prisoners from Guantanamo, on sending significantly more soldiers to Afghanistan and on new economic stimulus programs.
Merkel, on the other hand, was repeatedly appalled last year at how inconsiderate the Americans were of German or European interests. Whenever she spoke to Obama about climate protection, he was only concerned with the consequences for the United States. When the Americans settled on a new strategy for Afghanistan, they didn't ask their allies first. Merkel also suspects that the United States is not interested in reining in the financial industry.
She is forced to look on as America becomes more and more enmeshed in a duel with China. Nothing is done that could impair Washington's position toward China, which is why the United States doesn't want to take on the burdens of a strict climate policy or a more tightly controlled financial market. German interests are of little importance, because Germany has little left to offer the Americans.
Oddly enough, a wall separates Merkel and the land of her dreams once again, a wall that isn't quite as high and has been shifted somewhat farther to the West. Hello, we're still here, Merkel is constantly calling out across the wall. The response, if she's lucky enough to get one, isn't encouraging: Oh, I see ...
At least Obama has promised to come to one of her barbecues. Perhaps they'll get into a nice conversation over a plate of barbecued pork.