Obamania in Berlin An American Idol in Germany
He has already found his spot at the Brandenburg Gate. Indeed, it's where he speaks every day between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. -- his voice, met with wild cheers from his audience, is enough to send shivers down one's spine even today. After giving his speech, he is driven in an open limousine through Berlin, where hundreds of thousands line the streets, chanting: "Kennedy, Kennedy."
His eternal spot in Berlin is in a museum on Pariser Platz, directly across the square from the Brandenburg Gate. The museum, called "The Kennedys," represents the ultimate in a politician's achievements -- complete and utter hero worship. It is filled with attractive photographs, inspiring quotes and magnificence. The film constantly on screen there depicts former US President John F. Kennedy's appearance in Berlin in June, 1963, including the parade given in his honor and his speech in front of the Schöneberg Town Hall, where he famously said: "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner").
Barack Obama's voice, by contrast, will not be heard at the Brandenburg Gate and he will not be gazing at the "The Kennedys" museum when he speaks in Berlin. Though he is often compared with Kennedy and sparks similar hopes, Obama hasn't come that far yet. He still lacks the kind of stature that would spare him from being ground through the mill of German politics. German Chancellor Angela Merkel turned down his request to speak at the Brandenburg Gate.
President of the World
But at least he is coming. He will be in Berlin this Thursday, when Germans will hail him as a magician with the ability to transform a gloomy world into a brighter place. Never before has there been so much excitement in Germany over the visit of a presumed US presidential candidate. Obama may be running for the White House, but judging by the commotion, one would think that he had already advanced two steps further and were the president of the world.
Which is precisely the issue. Obama raises hopes that he will not just change America, but politics as a whole.
Obama is the hope of a Western world filled with concerns. A recession looms as does high inflation sparked by exploding demand for commodities and natural resources. Furthermore, no one has yet come up with a convincing response to global warming. No one knows how to bring peace to the Middle East, Afghanistan or Iraq. And no one has a promising strategy for dealing with Islamist terrorism.
At the same time, the West is searching for its place in an "incomplete world order," as journalist Peter Bender describes the current state of affairs. How strong will China, Russia and India become? How should the West interact with these countries? And is there even such a thing as the "West" anymore?
It is time for leadership. And only one man inspires the kind of confidence that would enable him to assume this leadership: Barack Obama. Germans, in particular, are pinning their hopes on this man. Whereas just 10 percent favor the Republican candidate John McCain, fully 76 percent consider Barack Obama the better candidate.
Hubertus Heil, the general secretary of Germany's Social Democratic Party (SPD), has even borrowed Obama's campaign slogan in an effort to whip up support. But Heil's feeble attempt to inform party members that "Yes, we can!" might as well have fallen on deaf ears. As Heil and later Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier learned, it takes more than words to produce charisma.
A Country that Lacks Leadership
"Obama has created a mood that makes it possible to have faith in politics," said Norbert Röttgen, the parliamentary leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Röttgen spoke enthusiastically about Obama, but his enthusiasm was also an indirect criticism of top German politicians, of men and women who seem to be everything but Obama, or at least everything but the image that many Germans have formed of him.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was also a candidate for the global presidency once. But by now it has become clear that she even has trouble leading her coalition government at home.
Obama will be visiting a country that lacks leadership. Merkel is unable to take energetic action, the climate in Berlin is too harsh for SPD party leader Kurt Beck, and in a recent interview in Stern magazine, the governor of the state of Lower Saxony, Christian Wulff -- once seen as an up and coming Christian Democrat -- admitted that he is no "alpha male" and was not totally consumed by advancing up the political ladder. Surrounded by such blandness, it's no wonder that many a German sees the charismatic American as a savior.
Part of that attitude stems from a need to repair relations between the two countries. Some of the Germans' concerns about big brother across the Atlantic developed into an open quarrel during the era of current US President George W. Bush.
In short, there are quite a few challenges ahead for a man who hasn't even been elected yet -- and perhaps doesn't even embody the image Germany has formed of him. America, at any rate, is already a step ahead of the Germans. While Germany looks forward to being spellbound by Obama this week, the magician's allure has already begun to fade in America.
His request to give a speech at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate even sparked some criticism in the United States. "It would make him look like a president," says CNN commentator Bill Schneider. "Every news channel would then play Ronald Reagan and they would play Kennedy 'Ich bin ein Berliner.'" And it is not just Obama's adversaries, but even his supporters who were put off by the chutzpa of a presidential candidate seeking to speak at the Brandenburg Gate. "That is a bit arrogant, isn't it?" says Schneider.
The criticism coming from the conservative wing has been stronger. Obama "thought a cheering audience and a few fainting frauleins would be a picturesque way to bolster his foreign policy credentials," says right-wing columnist Charles Krauthammer. "What Obama does not seem to understand is that the Brandenburg Gate is something you earn. What was his role in the fight against communism?"
Photographers and TV Crews
For Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, on the other hand, it was patently obvious that Obama would want to speak at the Brandenburg Gate. Where else? The gate went from being a symbol of a divided Germany to one of unity. It is Berlin's most famous landmark.
But Wowereit's bubble burst when Merkel, at the time on a trip to faraway Japan, registered her concerns about an Obama appearance in front of the gate. In a conversation with President Bush at the G-8 summit in Hokkaido, the chancellor said that she was opposed to Obama's appearance at the Brandenburg Gate.
The official explanation was that such an important and deeply symbolic place should not be used as a stage in a foreign election campaign. But this raises the question as to why, for example, "Fashion Week," a major fashion event and enormous ad campaign for its sponsor Mercedes rolled into one, was allowed to completely take over such an important and deeply symbolic place last year. At least Obama would have brought more dignity to the site, which suggests that Merkel could be looking at the Obama appearance through a political lens. According to that logic, a victory for the Democrat Obama would give a boost to Germany's center-left Social Democrats.
At the Berlin Town Hall of Social Democratic Mayor Klaus Wowereit, officials likewise suspect that the chancellor was merely denying her Social Democratic rivals a publicity coup. Wowereit's office, though, remains confident that the mayor and Obama will visit the Brandenburg Gate together -- complete with photographers and TV crews.
The Old Continent's Possible Future President
The battle over the site of Obama's speech was bizarre. The Chancellery sought to make it as insignificant an appearance as possible, while the City of Berlin and the Foreign Office fought to make it as much of a splash as it could be. Strategists at the Chancellery, hoping to use Kennedy to beat Obama at his own game, provided his campaign with film clips and newspaper articles depicting Kennedy in an appearance at the Free University of Berlin. The intended message was that even a small room can be a good place for great men.
When a 12-member advance team arrived in Berlin last Wednesday, its first port of call was the Foreign Office, where seven team members met with protocol expert Eva Gräfin Kendeffy and her staff. The German officials discussed all points of German concern with their American guests. From their standpoint, the visit would amount to two events: an appointment with the chancellor at 11 a.m. on July 24, followed by a meeting with Foreign Minister Steinmeier at 2:30 p.m. Kendeffy indicated that photographers would be allowed, but press conferences were unnecessary.
The Americans countered that while 10,000 listeners would be nice, they were expecting more. After all, they said, the Germans could expect large numbers of Americans from throughout Europe to take advantage of Obama's only public appearance on the Old Continent to get a first-hand look at their possible future president. Obama's team envisioned something of a street festival, with music starting at 5 p.m. and at least a 45-minute speech by the candidate in the early evening hours.
After the visit to the Foreign Office, the advance team met with city officials, the local authority in Berlin's Mitte district, the police and an event management company. During a tour of the city, the American guests photographed the various sites and promptly e-mailed the images back to Obama's campaign headquarters in Chicago.
'Honeymoon' Soon to End
During a meeting at the Chancellery, Merkel's foreign policy advisor, Christoph Heusgen, proposed the Free University as a site for Obama's speech, but unsuccessfully. In the end, the advance team announced its favorite: the circle around Berlin's Victory Column, right in the heart of Berlin's huge Tiergarten Park. The site is not a traditional one for public addresses, but it used to take center stage during the Love Parade when it was still in Berlin. Over the weekend, Obama's campaign team confirmed the choice.
In the end, though, despite the weeks of headlines the site search produced, it will be the content of Obama's speech to which political Berlin will pay the closest attention. Already, a divide is forming in Berlin's political circles over how to assess the candidate. Conservatives insist that the differences between Obama and the Republican candidate, Arizona Senator John McCain, are exaggerated. Perhaps the "honeymoon" will last a little longer with Obama, says Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a CSU foreign policy expert. But, Guttenberg adds, the "fracture point" will be reached no later than the NATO summit in the spring of 2009, when the new US president, be it Obama or McCain, outlines exactly how he envisions trans-Atlantic cooperation in the future -- and that will include US demands that Germany send more troops to embattled southern Afghanistan.
Most US experts at research institutions share this assessment. They warn of exaggerated expectations. They warn against discounting McCain and the experience he brings to the table. And they warn of Obama's lack of experience, speculating that the presidency could very well turn out to be a rude awakening for the Democratic candidate.
But foreign policy experts in the SPD, the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Green Party refuse to be deterred by such rhetoric. With Obama as president, Germans and Americans could finally "talk about shared values once again," says FDP foreign policy expert Werner Hoyer. Green Party politician and former Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin is hoping for a "true new beginning," and former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer agrees: "With McCain, one has a pretty good idea of what to expect." Fischer believes that McCain, unlike Obama, would not bring about any significant change as president. For Fischer, Obama could "fail, possibly even in a big way, but he could also turn out to be one of the truly great American presidents." Foreign Minister Steinmeier hopes that the Democratic senator, should he become president, will promote a "new, open foreign policy."
Such are the expectations in Germany, despite the fact that Germans still have an unclear picture of the candidate. Every word he utters about foreign policy is eagerly absorbed and interpreted -- like the keynote address Obama gave in Washington last Tuesday. It was a smart speech, strong on content, and for the first time he sounded more like a president than a presidential candidate. If the words he uttered in a windowless conference room at the Reagan Building in Washington D.C. become reality, the trans-Atlantic relationship faces an exciting and possibly even turbulent time ahead.
Most of all, it becomes apparent that Obama is committed to reconciling Europeans and Americans. He emphasizes cooperation as a recipe to end the drastic plunge in America's standing in the world.
"Americans don't want to be the skunk at the garden party anymore," says Jackson Janes, director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington. Obama wants to be popular, but he also wants more than that. He and his teams of advisors have made it clear that, as far as they are concerned, partnership also means obligation. A President Obama would nurture and encourage America's partners, but would expect something in return.
Just how Obama feels about the Europeans becomes clear from chatting with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security advisor under former President Jimmy Carter and a current advisor to the Obama campaign. Brzezinski's language is peppered with the kinds of words that will likely be heard more often in the future: partnership, responsibility, sharing burdens. "I think the Europeans have to decide whether they want to be a global power or not," says Brzezinski. Should they decide they do, Brzezinski's message continues, they will be called upon to assume their fair share of the decision-making process, responsibility and the financial burden.
Suffering, of course, would also be a part of that. More than 4,500 Americans have died and more than 30,000 have been wounded, many of them severely, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only recently, President Bush invited a group of war invalids to join him for a jog at the White House. Bush posed for photographers next to the wounded soldiers, as they stood there on prosthetic metal legs and plastic feet.
The war on terror would not cease under a President Obama. Bush's foreign policy meant tanks, aircraft carriers and bombers. Obama's foreign policy would be focused on diplomacy, reconstruction aid and, if this doesn't work, tanks, aircraft carriers and bombers.
Shift Troops from Iraq to Afghanistan
In the 60 years since the end of World War II, there has been only one president who, with the exception of an attempt to liberate hostages, did not command a military campaign. That president was the hapless Jimmy Carter. All others have taken greater or lesser advantage of their powers as commander-in-chief of the US Armed Forces. In this regard, there have been few distinctions between Republicans and Democrats. Under Obama, the tone might be different than it has been under the stubborn President Bush, but the larger foreign policy substance likely would not be.
Obama plans to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, the second front in the war on terror. "The Afghan people must know that our commitment to their future is enduring," he said last Tuesday. For Obama, this means beefing up the current force of 32,000 US troops in Afghanistan by at least two brigades, or 10,000 soldiers. But, if Obama has his way, America will not be going it alone. "We need more troops, more helicopters, more satellites, more Predator drones in the Afghan border region," he said in his speech in Washington. We need, he made it clear, more NATO.
He could just as well have said "more Europe" or "more Germany." Others are more direct about Obama's intentions. One of them is Stephen Szabo, director of the Transatlantic Academy in Washington D.C., who predicts "Obama will expect the Europeans to take on more dangerous assignments and not let the Americans and the British do the dirty work." Szabo's message to Berlin: "Germans should be more realistic about it. Afghanistan is not a development project."
When it comes to Iraq, those who expect Obama to push for a rapid withdrawal of US troops will likely be disappointed. He has already toned down his antiwar rhetoric. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican and one of Obama's supporters, advocates a "responsible withdrawal." Obama himself has advocating ending the war in a "careful way."
The withdrawal will likely be a gradual one -- whereby military power in Iraq will be slowly transferred to the Iraqi army, which will have been trained and equipped by the United States. Nevertheless, the US Armed Forces certainly won't turn their backs entirely on the country. The US government is in the midst of hammering out an agreement with Baghdad over the stationing of US troops that would provide for a permanent presence not unlike that in place in Germany. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress support the plan.
The Foreign Policy Similarities between Obama and McCain
The biggest surprise for Europe would be if Obama, were to open a third front in the mountains of Pakistan. He has often spoken of "taking the fight to al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan." It is a message that shows little concern for the sovereignty of Pakistan, a country which possesses nuclear weapons, but it shows his desire to put a stop to extremist activities in the region along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Obama will not necessarily continue the peaceful relationship President Bush maintained with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," says Obama.
But Obama's plans include fighting the war against terror with the help of civilians and millions of dollars, not just soldiers. The name he repeatedly mentions as a role model for his foreign policy is one that is likely to make many Germans feel nostalgic: General George C. Marshall.
In June 1947, Secretary of State Marshall, who had been the military commander of the US Army at the end of World War II and was partly responsible for the Allied victory against Hitler's forces, launched an ambitious program to jump-start a recovery of European industry. In his famous speech to launch the program, which then President Harry Truman insisted be called the Marshall Plan, he said: "It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos."
Obama wants to offer a similar program to the countries of the Middle East that are affected by the war on terror. The Europeans will be expected to help pay for the program -- a return to what used to be called checkbook diplomacy.
Obama and McCain are remarkably similar on many questions of foreign policy. McCain is no cowboy politician, either. While the Bush administration has consistently been dismissive of disarmament treaties, the two presidential candidates have said that they would favor the resumption of multilateral disarmament negotiations. Both enthusiastically support the notion of a world without nuclear weapons, and McCain has suggested that he would revisit the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the United States has not ratified.
Obama Stood His Ground
Both candidates want to enlarge the US military, Obama by 90,000 and McCain by 150,000 troops. Such plans to beef up what is already the world's largest armed forces will likely meet with skepticism in Europe. But on the issue of climate protection, Germans will like what they see coming from either candidate. Obama favors reducing America's dependence on oil as soon as possible. In fact, he has already survived an initial test of strength in a country notorious for its wasteful use of energy. When McCain proposed a bill that would have reduced federal taxes on gasoline during the summer vacation months -- a gas tax holiday well received by the public -- Obama stood his ground.
He characterized the McCain bill as the wrong way to respond to dwindling resources. Obama also opposes McCain's and Bush's latest idea of opening up America's coastlines for offshore drilling, saying that the United States cannot drill its way out of the current dilemma.
Obama has not been shy about using dramatic rhetoric to promote his goals of moving away from the use of fossil fuels. The price of oil is "one of the most dangerous weapons in the world today," he said in his speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center last week, and proposed a $150 billion (€94 billion) program to develop renewable energy. His model, Obama said in late June, is the energy policy developed under the Social Democratic and Green coalition government of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
"Germany, a country as cloudy as the Pacific Northwest, is now a world leader in the solar power industry," he said in a speech in Las Vegas on June 26. His message was clear: America must not only emulate, but even surpass Germany's solar record. Obama favors a greening of the US economy. He wants his New Deal to be a Green Deal, and he is convinced that it will create new jobs, perhaps as may as 5 million.
Peter Goldmark of the Environmental Defense Fund is not just optimistic but euphoric, and he believes that a breakthrough is just around the corner. "Any new face in the White House will mean a radical shift in the US position on climate change," he says. Ironically, the issue has not dominated the campaign so far, partly because both McCain and Obama hold such similar positions.
The problem with Obama's pronouncements is that he has the same problem any other politician has. In fact, it is an even greater problem for Obama because he was long believed to be immune to it. The problem is called credibility. There are now two Obamas: the Obama of the primaries and the Obama of the general election campaign.
Straight from the Kansas Heartland
There are two little films that couldn't be more different. In the first one, actress Scarlett Johansson and Black Eyed Peas, a popular band, perform a song titled "Yes, We Can," underscored by Obama's speeches. The black-and-white clip is a symbiosis of pop and politics and was the hit of the Democratic primaries.
The second film is a TV ad that has been running in many states for the last three weeks. In it Obama, wearing a properly ironed shirt, smiles into the camera as if he were being introduced to his in-laws. He talks about "love of country," "hard work" and "values straight from the Kansas heartland" that he received from his parents.
Since Obama secured the nomination in early June, he has marched straight from Hollywood to Kansas. He is doing exactly the same thing every US politician in the past has done when the general election campaign begins: He is moving toward the middle, where the election will be decided in November. It is a shift that makes perfect sense to Obama strategists. Instead of playing just to the Democratic left, he has expanded his audience to include the entire nation. During the primaries, Obama was against the death penalty and deeply critical of the Bush administration's curtailing of civil liberties. But in the general election, Obama now supports the death penalty in certain cases for criminals found guilty of raping small children, and he recently voted in the Senate for the expansion of telephone surveillance in the name of national security.
During the primaries, Obama wanted to keep weapons out of urban areas. In the general election, he suddenly agrees that every American has the right to bear arms.
During the primaries, Obama complained that many Americans confused wearing a US flag lapel pin with true patriotism. Nowadays he usually wears a pin himself. The old Obama wanted to clean up among lobbyists in Washington and favored public campaign financing. The new Obama has suddenly changed his mind, now that he has realized what an effective fund-raiser he is. When asked whether Obama will be capable of bringing the change he promises to the US capital, Norman Birnbaum, a professor at Georgetown University, says "he has already become a Washington candidate." Obama has quickly transitioned from being a critic of the establishment to a part of the establishment.
The shift has Obama's younger supporters especially upset. Joe McCraw, a liberal blogger from California, told the New York Times: "This is the first time I've ever seen him lie to us, and it makes me feel disappointed. I thought he was going to stand up there, stand by his campaign promises like he said he would, and it turns out he's another politician." It is precisely because Obama portrayed himself as an über-mensch that his change of heart is not without risk, says Ben Austin, another frustrated Obama supporter. "To the extent progressives see him as the Reagan of the left, Reagan didn't tack toward the center. He moved the American electorate to the right."
But Obama wouldn't be able to move the electorate to the left. As a result, those on the left now see a number of their dreams going up in smoke.
An Ordinary Politician
In the primaries, Obama stimulated millions of young people to become enthusiastic politics for the first. His list of campaign donors included 1.7 million people, and most donations were small. He portrayed politics as an experience of awakening. But now his halo is beginning to fade. "If Obama would walk out on Lake Michigan, he would see that he would sink," says Jackson Janes.
Experts believe, however, that many on the left see no alternative to Obama and will reluctantly vote for him in November. It would be dangerous, however, if his many young supporters decided to stay home in November, just as young voters did in 2004 when John Kerry was the Democratic candidate.
The Republicans are trying to take advantage of Obama's suppleness. They want to expose him as nothing but an ordinary politician, who "will continue to change his stances as he puts politics ahead of principle," as a Republican spokesman claims. "Obama simply doesn't keep his word," McCain says about the senator from Illinois at almost every campaign appearance. But McCain himself cannot decide whether he should move to the right to capture the conservative base -- or whether he should join Obama and fish for votes in the center.
He is currently pursuing both strategies. In the past, the senator from Arizona was opposed to drilling for oil in Alaska's Arctic Nation Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but today he is all for it. In the past, McCain was against tax cuts for the rich, but today he supports them. Then he sets his sights on moderate voters once again and says that the nation must protect the environment and care for those who cannot care for themselves.
The US No Longer a Force for Good
Obama is ahead of McCain in most polls, even among voters in the center. Nevertheless, McCain has kept up a steady fight, especially considering that the Bush-era Republicans are plagued with approval ratings around 30 percent.
For Germany, perhaps the most important thing about the US elections is that they will end in Bush's departure. Whoever succeeds him will face the challenge of rejuvenating a difficult German-American relationship. Relations between the two countries were clear for more than 50 years. The victorious power that once subjugated and then divided Germany was quickly replaced by a protective power, a guarantor of West Germany's freedom against the expansionist ambitions of its communist neighbors.
Berlin, the former capital, symbolized this role. The Berlin Airlift and the standoff between US and Soviet tanks on either side of Checkpoint Charlie revealed America's willingness to stand up to the Soviet Union, even if it meant going to the brink of war.
Germany's friendship with the United States became synonymous with its national interest. There were moments of dissonance now and again, such as over Germany's position in the Vietnam War and NATO rearmament, but the true core of the relationship, which was more of a family bond than an alliance between two countries, remained unchanged.
The Golden Years
In 1989, when it came time to resolve the German question, the Americans showed their appreciation to West Germany for decades of loyalty. Then President George H.W. Bush threw his unqualified support behind German reunification, much to the displeasure of Great Britain and France, which feared a new strengthening of their historic rival. Bush's successor, Bill Clinton, played the saxophone, and when it came to going to war, he preferred to do it over human rights. In that way, he was able to get the Germans on board and convince them to deploy their Tornado fighter jets in the war in the Balkans.
In retrospect, those were golden years, years of unprecedented harmony in the German-American friendship. Then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a product of the anti-American left, met with Clinton, a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood. After the meal with Schröder, as Clinton's motorcade drove down Kollwitzstrasse, the most powerful man in the world glanced longingly out of his car window, as if he would buy a condominium there if he could.
According to a poll conducted at the time by the Pew Institute, an American public opinion research group, 78 percent of Germans had a favorable image of the United States. When Pew asked Germans how they felt about the United States in 2007, its approval rating had dropped to 30 percent.
The two polls were separated by Sept. 11, 2001 and the bellicose reaction of the last remaining superpower. The Iraq controversy is a tale of mutual insults and disappointments, of tricks and betrayal, but most of all of the kinds of misunderstandings that must lead to consequences in the relationship between two closely allied nations. One of those misunderstandings occurred when Bush visited Berlin in May 2002.
When it came to their characters, Schröder and Bush were in fact not unalike. Schröder was straightforward, uninterested in pomp and, unlike the leaders in Moscow and Paris at the time, did not feel a need to hand Bush a history lesson. The two spent an hour at the Chancellery, talking about a variety of issues, but not about the preparations for regime change in Baghdad that the US government had been planning for some time.
Based on information from their advisors, both men had concluded that it would be best to avoid the topic. Schröder understood that Bush would not ask him for more troops, putting him in a politically awkward position before the September parliamentary elections in Germany. And Bush believed that Schröder would not stab him in the back if he attacked Iraq. These beliefs prepared the ground for a quarrel that has never quite been resolved, even to this day. As Bush saw it, Schröder broke his promise to win the election. And as Schröder saw it, Bush left him with no alternative by pushing for an invasion.
Fluctuation Between Admiration and Aversion
The climate at the government level has improved significantly since Merkel became chancellor, but this has not meant that the German people have a higher opinion about America today. Not a single political discussion about the United States and the war goes by without mention of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, two places associated in the German mind with barbarity. According to a recent report in the Daily Telegraph, today only 27 percent of Germans today would describe the United States as a "force for good."
Such numbers describe more than just a temporary annoyance over a nation's foreign policy. The Germans have always been divided in their relationship to America, fluctuating between admiration and aversion. Which of these two extremes dominates the opinion polls depends in part on the general political situation.
John Kornblum, the former US ambassador to Germany, has an appealing theory to explain why the relationship between sister nations is so complicated. Today's Americans, says Kornblum, are the descendants of Europeans who couldn't abide life in Europe, and who wanted something more radical and therefore emigrated. For this reason, Kornblum believes, it is wrong to expect similarities. America is, in a sense, an anti-Europe.
The situation is somewhat more complicated in Germany, because the Germans have the Americans to thank for so much: liberation from the Nazis, a functioning democracy and the basis of their prosperity.
Attention to everything American is enormous in Germany. Hardly any other nation in Old Europe is as thoroughly Americanized. The Germans are almost indistinguishable from the Americans when it comes to eating, drinking and watching television, but they never miss an opportunity to reassure themselves of just how superior they are to their relatives across the Atlantic.
Germans, in their own assessment, are not as materialistic as Americans, have more depth and culture, better washing machines and -- it goes without saying -- better cars. When there is a blackout on the American East Coast, it makes headlines on Germany's evening news. Look at those Americans, the Germans are then quick to point out, they want to rule the world and yet they can't even keep the lights on.
In this respect, George W. Bush was a godsend for Germans and their complex inventory of emotions. Never before had they been able to complain so openly about the Americans' hubris and arrogance and then feel so vindicated afterwards. Texan Bush embodies everything the Germans criticize about America: the small-minded and swaggering demeanor of a Southerner.
Dialogue and Mutual Understanding
Obama is far closer to the Germans. In fact, he seems almost European: not some Texas cowboy, but a Harvard graduate from an urban environment, and not a "straight shooter" but a man who emphasizes dialogue and mutual understanding.
But even if Obama replaces Bush, America will still be America. The United States is still the military superpower, and yet the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have exposed the limits of its superiority for the entire world to see. The United States is still the world's largest and most important democracy, and yet several countries, especially Russia and China, are doing their best to replace democracy as a forward-looking model of government.
Five years ago, the vision of a "multi-polar world order" was still a rallying cry for anti-American leftists. Today most academics see multi-polarity as a reality that must be acknowledged, for better or for worse. Richard Haass, Director of Policy Planning for the US State Department in the early part of Bush's first term, recently spoke of a "non-polar" world in which the United States is only one of many actors. Whether it is with Obama or McCain, Germany will have to find its role in this new world.
Since taking office, Foreign Minister Steinmeier has argued for a readjustment of the German-American relationship. He calls his project, somewhat awkwardly, a "new trans-Atlantic agenda" and talks a lot about climate and disarmament. But if we take a closer look, we realize that the German foreign minister is in fact operating in a trans-Atlantic world that abandoned the flowery language of an old friendship long ago.
Steinmeier believes that it is important for the nations of the West to stick together, especially if the rise of emerging economies leads to a realignment of the world map. To this end, Steinmeier warns, the West must take a pragmatic and cautious approach to defining common interests. "The attempt to reshape the West without the rest of the world would leave us with a world without the West."
Steinmeier's predecessor, Joschka Fischer, disagrees. After the Iraq war, he argued for a "reconstruction of the West." According to Kornblum, who shares Fischer's view, Europe and North America form a community of values and are thus natural allies. Germany, says Kornblum, could never achieve the same level of commonality with Russia or China. In fact, Kornblum envisions a partnership so close that relations between countries of the West would not be a matter of foreign policy, but of a "trans-Atlantic domestic policy."
Germans may discover Barack Obama's views on the matter this Thursday. By Saturday morning, it was not yet clear what the subject of his speech would be, but he will probably be directing his remarks more toward an American than a German audience. He is, after all, in the middle of an election campaign.
At the moment his speechwriter is the one with the biggest problem. Will he come up with a similarly epochal sentence to Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner?" Perhaps he won't even try. The fall of the Wall has made Berlin a better city, but it is no longer a place for words that make history.
After his visit to Berlin, as he was sitting in a plane on his way to Ireland, John F. Kennedy said: "We'll never have another day like this one." Obama will have to count himself lucky if he gives a reasonably good speech.
By Ralf Beste, Jan Fleischhauer, Dirk Kurbjuweit, Cordula Meyer, Gregor Peter Schmitz, Michael Sontheimer and Gabor Steingart
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan