Obama's Germany trip can't be business as usual
President Obama needs to offer some fresh ideas for the future of America's most important alliance – its partnership with Europe. After wrapping up the G8 summit this week in Northern Ireland, Mr. Obama is in Berlin today for his first official visit to Germany. There he will give a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, which has come to symbolize Berlin’s post-cold war reunification. This itinerary is entirely appropriate, given Germany's ascendancy as the Continent's pivotal power.
America needs Germany to help tackle global issues that the United States is unlikely to solve alone – issues such as Chinese cybertheft and Iran. And America needs it to be a forceful and generous guarantor of a fraying union of European nations that is still engulfed by an economic and governance crisis.
And yet, a speech at the Brandenburg Gate will not be enough to make the US-European partnership safe for the 21st century. A focus on Germany is a necessary baseline, but it is not the same as a policy for Europe – which is America's largest trading partner and most important military ally, and with which it shares democratic values.
German power has limits, and so does its ambition to lead, not to mention the willingness of Europeans to be led by Germany. Hence, America needs a broader strategy to help Europe recast itself in a transforming world, because the circumstances that created and maintained the transatlantic relationship – a cold war and a divided continent – are no more.
It was not by choice that the US became a "European power" in the 20th century. As scholar Simon Serfaty observes, America's costliest problems across the Atlantic grew out of ideas and projects that the Europeans "proposed and started, but could not pursue and complete – whether a war or a revolution earlier on, or a union and a single currency more recently." In each case, the US initially underestimated the depth of the problem and the danger it represented to American interests.
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Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff leads the EuroFuture Project at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.