Despite Doubts over Data Privacy, Germany Will Welcome Obama
BERLIN—When then-Senator Barack Obama spoke in Berlin in the summer of 2008 — “not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen” — a crowd of 200,000 cheered him with a fervor they might otherwise reserve for rock stars. His speech fulfilled the yearning of many Germans for a United States that was open and friendly, and that embraced Germany’s aversion to unilateralism, climate change, nuclear weapons — and George W. Bush. In a poll taken in June 2008, 83 percent of Germans had a favorable view of the man who would go on to win November’s U.S. presidential election. Since then, German views of Obama have sobered.
It has been noted that he did not overcome Congressional resistance to an international climate change agreement, did not close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, increased the number of drones used in warfare, and could not push through a bill for stricter gun control. Still, most Germans blame the U.S. Congress and the Republican Party for these defeats. In 2012, a poll found that almost 90 percent Germans preferred Obama’s reelection to a Mitt Romney victory and in a poll this month, 85 percent agreed that Obama is a good president. When he speaks at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate this week — this time, as president — he can be sure to be given a friendly reception. It is surprising that it took Obama four and a half years, and eight visits to Europe, before making a state visit to Germany.
This is a country that the historian Timothy Garton Ash called Europe’s “indispensable power” and economist Adam Posen “the anchor economy of Europe.” But his forthcoming visit comes at a historic moment: Fifty years ago John F. Kennedy told Germans “Ich bin ein Berliner” during a visit that the Spiegel magazine characterized as an “almost ecstatic celebration of the alliance of protection and defense.” Beyond the historical symbolism, the political agenda can be expected to be suitably diverse. Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel will likely exchange views about developments in major crisis regions, including Syria and Libya. The president will probably remind Merkel of Germany’s economic strength and responsibility for assisting its weaker partners in overcoming the euro crisis.
The view that Germany is selfishly wielding its clout — imposing austerity policies on weaker European economies in order to protect German taxpayers — can not only be heard in southern Europe, but also in Washington. On the German side, the PRISM affair will undoubtedly overshadow Obama’s visit. With the revelations that a number of U.S. Internet firms pass on data to the United States’ National Security Agency, many people suspect that German data protection laws have been routinely violated. Members of the German intelligence community have reassured reporters that they do not receive raw data from U.S. surveillance programs, although they regularly receive information about potential threats without the sources of such information being revealed. Prominent politicians from all parties have called upon the chancellor to ask Obama for clarification during his visit.
The real danger, though, is that the PRISM revelation may lead to greater distrust during the negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). TTIP is the single largest cooperative transatlantic project since the end of the Cold War, and a stated goal of the Obama administration and the German government. Negotiations will cover not only tariff reductions but also investment protection, public procurement, and the harmonization or mutual recognition of norms and standards. The EU Commission expects that the agreement will lead to 400,000 new jobs in Europe and an annual GDP increase of 0.5 percent.
Should the negotiations falter, this will certainly have an impact on the ability of the transatlantic partners to cooperate and compete in the global economy. Obama’s visit this year will be nothing like his tour of 2008. The German public understands that he is neither a rock star nor a man who can single-handedly change the world. While Germans still favor him over any Republican, their attitudes about the president are much less emotional than they were five years ago — and that can only be a good thing.
Heike MacKerron is the director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.