United in Mutual Annoyance What's Gone Wrong with German-US Relations?

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be fêted in the White House as a recipient of America's highest civilian award. But the honor comes at a time when the US and Germany have struggled to reach agreement on issues ranging from the economy to foreign policy. By SPIEGEL Staff
Trans-Atlantic partners Angela Merkel and Barack Obama: A tone you usually don't hear among friends

Trans-Atlantic partners Angela Merkel and Barack Obama: A tone you usually don't hear among friends


There are honors that are not awarded for past accomplishments. Instead, they convey the hope that, at some point in the future, the person honored with the award will actually earn it. Such was the case in 2009, when United States President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At that point, Obama had only been in office a few months and hadn't accomplished anything significant in terms of world peace.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be in Washington to discuss a number of pressing issues with Obama, but she will also use the opportunity to pick up the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, America's highest civilian honor. The only other German politician to receive the award was Helmut Kohl, Germany's chancellor between 1982 and 1998. She will be given the award at a state dinner held at the White House, and Obama will deliver the award speech himself. Merkel will be accompanied by her husband, Joachim Sauer, a rare occurrence meant to highlight the importance of the event.

More than anything, though, Merkel's Freedom Award is freighted with many hopes and expectations. Compared with where things stood just a year ago, people in Washington regard Merkel with much more skepticism today. "The prevailing view in Washington is that friendship with the United States is no longer necessarily Germany's top priority," says Fiona Hill, a Europe expert at the influential Washington-based Brookings Institution. Indeed, Americans want the old Merkel back.

Obama and Merkel have not established a close personal bond, but that's not the only problem. When it comes to important issues, Germany and the United States have never stood farther apart during Merkel's two terms as chancellor as they are at the moment. Merkel's reputation in Washington has been hurt by Germany's decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022, Berlin's abstention in a United Nations Security Council vote on imposing a "no-fly" zone in Libya and the country's economic and financial policies.

Looking at things from the opposite perspective, Obama's standing has also taken a hit in German government circles. In the Chancellery, he is viewed as a president who fails to deliver on lofty pronouncements. Indeed, Merkel does not have faith that he can solve the world's problems. The greatest thing the two governments have in common is their mutual annoyance.

An Awkward Position for Germany

Berlin views Obama's actions related to the Middle East conflict as particularly damaging. The government reportedly believes that Obama's most fundamental misstep came last September when he spoke before the UN General Assembly and predicted that a Palestinian state would be welcomed as a new member of the global community within a year. In Berlin, many feel it only served to foster unreasonable expectations among Palestinians -- and to anger the Israelis.

Merkel also resents Obama for having initially spoken out against intervening in Libya and then allowing pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other advisers to change his mind. She believes that Obama did not give enough thought to the consequences of intervening in Libya and that doing so ended up putting Germany in an awkward position.

In the US, on the other hand, Germany's abstention  in the UN Security Council vote was viewed as an effort to shirk its responsibility. "Merkel's Germany is now the most powerful country in Europe," says Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Washington-based Transatlantic Academy, "yet it still wants to act like Switzerland."

Secretary of State Clinton chose Berlin of all places as the venue for making clear just how angry the Americans are at Germany. "The world did not wait for another Srebrenica in a place called Benghazi," Clinton said in April at an event held at the American Academy in the German capital. Measured in diplomatic terms, that was a direct and upfront criticism of Germany's refusal to approve the West's mission against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates minced his words even less. In late April, when Gates first met with newly appointed German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, he indicated that Germany's reputation had been hurt when it found itself in the company of countries like Russia and China among the abstainers during the Security Council vote. You should know that, Gates told his visitor, who was taken aback. Indeed, Gates struck a tone that you usually don't hear among supposedly close friends.

Merkel Has Exhausted Goodwill of American People

Still, it wasn't too long ago that Americans viewed Merkel's Germany as their most important partner in Europe. Unlike her predecessor in office, Gerhard Schröder, Merkel enjoyed a reputation for being pro-American and reliable. Indeed, people in America thought that growing up in communist East Germany had given Merkel a special appreciation for the American understanding of freedom. It even made them more forgiving when Merkel openly criticized US policies, like the operation of the Guantanamo prison camp.

However, as it became clear during the G-8 summit held two weeks ago at the French coastal resort of Deauville, Merkel has exhausted that goodwill. Obama held one-on-one talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the summit's host, and went on to shower him with praise for "the leadership that he's shown on the world stage over the last several years." But he only came face-to-face with Merkel during the general working rounds.

When the G-8 members who had teamed up to confront Gadhafi militarily met to deliberate on the war in Libya, Merkel wasn't at the table. Nor was she among the group of politicians leading the crucial talks with Russia that succeeded in convincing it to join the anti-Gadhafi alliance. As the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung put it, such was "the price of insufficient courage."

Fundamentally Different Approaches

Though they might be less fraught with symbolism, the tensions related to economic policies are hardly less important. One major source of this tension can be found in US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who has hardly let a meeting of the G-20 finance ministers go by without criticizing German export surpluses in the same breath as Chinese trade surpluses. During a meeting held in South Korea in late October, he even tried to have new export-surplus target margins imposed  on Germany and China. Only a tour de force by German diplomats succeeded in torpedoing the proposal.

The issue isn't about haggling over numbers. At a basic level, Americans and Germans have different ideas about what post-crisis economic policies should look like. The Germans believe in drastic cuts, painful austerity packages, belt-tightening and structural reforms. In the United States, on the other hand, people are only slowly starting to realize that the country's high mountain of debt might become a problem.

The Americans are demanding that the Germans do something to stimulate domestic demand. But the Germans look with mistrust at the Fed, the American central bank, as it pursues a policy of buying up billions in US Treasury bonds and flooding the market with freshly printed cash. And now the G-20 partners are being asked to use a catalogue of criteria to determine whether countries like Germany are threatening the stability of the global economy by maintaining their foreign trade surpluses.

An Unbridgeable Gap on Energy and Climate?

While it is still conceivable that some formal compromises will be reached on financial issues, it appears that nothing can bridge the trans-Atlantic divide when it comes to energy and climate policies. In Germany, it is ironically Merkel's coalition government -- made up of her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- that is simultaneously championing a phase-out of nuclear energy and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But, in recent years, the political current in the United States has been steadily flowing in the opposite direction.

This was already apparent during the climate summit held in Copenhagen in December 2009. While Merkel argued for strict, binding emissions-reduction goals, Obama made backroom deals with the Chinese and the Indians. What's more, Obama has recently also announced plans for more oil and gas drilling. Likewise, he has held out the prospect of billions in government support to expand American's nuclear energy infrastructure, which the Germans view as an irresponsible course of action.

The Americans, on the other hand, have a hard time understanding why Germany's ruling coalition has made an about-face in its nuclear policies following the reactor catastrophe in Fukushima. Obama apparently even views Berlin's radical change in course as dangerous. Even most Democrats in American have a hard time really believing in the German rhetoric about its "green economy" or about how there's a lot of money to be made in it. In fact, to most people in the political world of Washington, Merkel's energy about-face seems downright grotesque.

Merkel and Obama Remain Dependent on Each Other

Of course, there have always been points of contention in the trans-Atlantic relationship. But the current situation seems particularly bad because the global political context has changed. For a while now, Germans have been unsettled by Obama's efforts to direct more of his country's attention toward the Pacific realm in Asia. Indeed, when it comes to his foreign-policy thinking, Europe seems to play an increasingly more minor role. The importance of US-German relations used to be taken for granted, but that no longer seems to be the case.

For their part, the Americans have complained that Germany's government doesn't take its leadership role in Europe seriously enough. Germany was important because, as Europe's leading power, it played a large part in determining the course of the European Union. But, these days, if there's any place that the EU looks like a quarreling bunch, it is when it comes to its foreign policy. And the Americans believe that part of the blame for this can be found in the fact that Berlin is no longer playing its central role.

Despite all these issues, Merkel and Obama are still dependent on one another. Washington knows that a government led by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) or the Green Party would presumably be even less America-friendly than Merkel's government. At the same time, Berlin watches with worry as the Republicans seem to inch further and further to the right. For the time being, officials in Merkel's Chancellery realize that Obama is the best they're going to get.


Translated from the German by Josh Ward