Loosening Up A More Equal German-American Relationship

Obama's Berlin visit highlighted how the relationship between Germany and the United States is changing into a looser affinity of equals. No longer the enthralled little brother, Germany must fill the vacuum on the world stage and act on its newfound stature.
Obama in Berlin: "We can be a little more informal among friends."

Obama in Berlin: "We can be a little more informal among friends."

Foto: AP/dpa

In both Germany and America, it's customary for the dinner host to signal when people are allowed to take off their jackets. If the host forgets, then the guests have to sit and sweat, even during dessert. Those are the rules.

When US President Barack Obama  recently gave a speech in Berlin , standing behind bulletproof glass in sweltering 35 degree Celsius (95 degree Fahrenheit) heat, he swiftly removed his jacket. "We can be a little more informal among friends," he said. The hosts were glad and followed his example.

Was it just one of these trivial details that occasionally become headlines  and substitute for politics -- or another indication of the changing power balance between the two countries?

There was no pathos to Obama's short, functional and casual first state visit to Berlin , four years after he took office. The Germans voiced their criticism without offending their visitor, but still ensured that he heard it. The term "data protection" didn't sound as guarded as the term "human rights" sounds when the Germans travel to China. Germany and the US are no longer the protectee and the protector, the needy and the benefactor. They are partners who are "truly on an equal footing," as Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle  says.

The old cravings for praise and longing to be recognized have evaporated, along with the awe. US security officials wanted to deploy a so-called jammer in Berlin to disable mobile phone networks within a distance of 100 meters (328 feet), but Germany's Federal Office of Criminal Investigation (BKA) said it wasn't necessary.

A Stalwart Partner

It's normal for ties to evolve and occasionally loosen. Germany no longer needs protection from the Warsaw Pact, and the US no longer pursues strategic interests here in Germany. The wave of German immigrants who helped shape America, D-Day, the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall are all history. Traditions and emotions have faded. Now plans and tactics link the two countries -- and that suits German Chancellor Angela Merkel  and Obama just fine.

According to Professor Stephen Walt of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Merkel is perceived in the US as "matter-of-fact and serious," and as a woman who "doesn't posture." He says she is "a leader who doesn't just tell you what you want to hear, someone with whom you can do business." The image that Washington has of France, Italy and even Britain is different: volatile, moody and whiny. Germany is seen as a stalwart partner -- and that's worth a great deal.

But it takes two to achieve a change in roles, and this also includes America. "In the 1990s, we thought we had the magic formula for everything. We were rich and invincible, and even Germany was expected to do what we wanted," says Walt. Those days are over. The US is vulnerable. It is losing wars, suffering from unemployment and learning something as European as modesty.

A Relationship of 'True Equals'

"The rattled US perceives Germany as an economically strong, tolerant and thoroughly democratic society. Consequently, the senior and junior partners have found their way to a mature relationship of true equals," says Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor for international politics. And both of these partners need each other to keep pace with Asia and solve tomorrow's global problems. "We're talking about climate change, terror, weapons of mass destruction and migration," says Burns, adding that "no country will be able to achieve anything alone in the future." Anyone who speaks with American observers of German policy senses both sides of this changing relationship: respect coupled with the hope that the Germans will act on their newfound position.

A power vacuum is emerging in international politics, at the United Nations and other institutions -- and this is also something new. The US wants to economize its strength and is pulling back. Newcomers China, Brazil and India act as if they are busy enough with their own growth.

For Germany, this means the beginning of a new era of distinctively European foreign policy . Selling arms but remaining largely on the sidelines is no foreign policy. Part of growing up is accepting the things in life that are uncomfortable. It requires policies -- on the Middle East, on drone warfare and on climate change -- and it requires action.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen