Obama and Europe Merkel Hopes for an End to US Unilateralism

With hopes of more cooperation among allies, a more ambitious attitude toward climate protection and less aggressive rhetoric, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her administration have great expectations for Barack Obama. But no one should expect a new era of permanent harmony.

By in Berlin

Like many of her fellow Germans, Chancellor Angela Merkel learned of Barack Obama's election victory in the early hours of the morning, when it was reported on television. "Of course, I was following the whole thing until it was time to go to bed," Merkel said on Wednesday at the Chancellery. She also woke up a few times during the night to "check on things" before going back to sleep, she said.

By the time Merkel got up in the morning, it was clear that Barack Obama would be the next president of the United States. The chancellor is unlikely to have been surprised by the news, since recent polls had the first black US presidential candidate leading his Republican rival by a significant margin. Early on Wednesday morning Obama was already receiving congratulatory messages from Berlin's political elite, starting with German President Horst Köhler, followed by Merkel and Vice Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Barack Obama in July in Berlin. All smiles, but will they get along?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Barack Obama in July in Berlin. All smiles, but will they get along?

Merkel met Obama for the first time in July, when the Democratic presidential candidate came to Berlin and spoke to more than 200,000 people in front of the city's Victory Column. On Wednesday she invited him to Germany for an official visit, and wished him "enjoyment in his work, strength and the necessary luck."

Obama and Merkel -- do they get along? It's well known that current President George W. Bush had a good working relationship with the chancellor, despite differences over climate policy and questions relating to global financial markets. But Merkel is unlikely to forget the neck massage Bush gave the shocked chancellor during the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg two years ago.

Obama's reserved style is more likely to suit Merkel's disposition than Bush's occasional rough-and-ready demeanor. During his brief visit to the Chancellery in July, conversation between the two politicians seemed friendly. The chemistry between Merkel and Obama seemed to be in order, despite some friction over the Obama team's initial choice of the Brandenburg Gate as the site of his speech -- and Merkel's rejection of the idea because of the landmark's symbolism.

This dust-up over the Brandenburg Gate caused a small partisan tug-of-war within the government's grand coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats. Vice-Chancellor and Foreign Minister Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, wasn't opposed to the site as a backdrop for Obama. Steinmeier is now Merkel's rival for the chancellery in next year's election, and in July he effused over Obama's "great speech" -- in front of the Victory Column, just a few hundred yards from the Brandenburg Gate. All politics, as they say in America, is local.

The Social Democratic Party (SPD) has close ties to the Obama camp, especially through foreign policy spokesman Gert Weisskirchen, who told SPIEGEL ONLINE how important it will be for Obama to meet with America's allies, listen to what they have to say and "work closely" with them.

According to Weisskirchen, there is a "mountain of things that need his attention," starting with the Middle East and the West's relationship with Russia and Iran. Obama, says Weisskirchen, should develop a clear list of priorities and start by attacking problems he can solve,"so that the beginning of his presidency can be a success."

Nevertheless, Steinmeier has admitted even in the immediate wake of Obama's victory that the president-elect would not bring instant change. "America as a whole," he told a conference on climate protection on Thursday in Freiburg, "is not ready to do its own fair share to combat the negative effects of climate change."

Hello, World

Obama has a chance to meet a whole group of his future colleagues next week. On Nov. 15, leaders from 20 countries will meet in the US capital for the "G-20" summit on the financial crisis. President Bush, who remains in office until the new president's inauguration in January, will preside over the conference. Obama will attend and meet with Merkel, among other leaders.

Gaining control over the financial crisis is one of the most urgent concerns of current German foreign policy. But Merkel is not looking just to the United States. She also pressed China's leadership to commit itself to joint action during her visit to Beijing in late October. Seeking new allies without alienating Washington will be one of the challenges involved in the process of creating new rules for the financial world.

Recent experience, though, has not been good: Memories are still fresh in Berlin of the snubbing Germany received in 2007, during its G-8 presidency, when Berlin's now prescient-seeming call for more transparent financial markets and greater control over hedge funds failed because of resistance from Washington and London.

But Merkel likes to emphasize the deep friendship between Germany and the United States. "I am also convinced that we will be able to solve the problems ahead," she says. Aside from the financial crisis, she means fighting terrorism and climate protection. But she hopes the days of US unilateralism are over: "We will do so in the knowledge that no one today can solve the problems of the entire world."

Foreign Minister Steinmeier has expressed similar sentiments. He says his first impression of Obama is of a man who "overcomes difficulties, brings people together, is a good listener and, in the end, is able to act in a very levelheaded, independent and measured way."

Listening and acting in concert are two concepts that are on everyone lips these days. "The United States should consult with its allies, instead of simply informing them, before making important decisions," the German government's coordinator for German-American cooperation, Karsten Voigt, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

And Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the Foreign Policy Committee in the German parliament, or Bundestag, says: "I would like to see the attractiveness of the United States revived and the country's approval ratings around the world increase once again." Worldwide approval has "gone to the dogs" in the last eight years, Polenz told SPIEGEL ONLINE. His Christian Democrat colleague in the European Parliament, Elmar Brok, wants to see "a true transatlantic community with joint strategic debates and decisions."

German foreign policy experts know that Germany could face entirely different challenges in the future, and that not even Obama can simply sidestep the world's realities. Pakistan, which the Taliban uses as a base from which to destabilize Afghanistan, remains a hot spot that will command the new US president's attention.

Obama said as much in Berlin. During his speech in July he reminded European leaders of a number of unpleasant truths. In Afghanistan, he said, the United States and Germany have "a mutual interest" in ensuring that the first NATO mission beyond Europe is a success. It's still too early to sketch the course of Obama's foreign policy, but a sentence from his Berlin speech could certainly characterize his basic tone. Referring to Afghanistan, he said, "America can not do this alone," in front of an estimated 200,000 people in Berlin.

German officials are also thinking pragmatically. When Economics Minister Michael Glos unveiled the nation's new economic stimulus program, he said he hoped for an "Obama effect." Glos, a Christian Democrat, thinks Obama's election could mean the return of "more confidence" in the economy.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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