Obama's Message to a Sober Germany
Photo: (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
BERLIN—As U.S. President Barack Obama today delivers the opening speech at the world’s largest industrial fair in Hannover, he will find a very different country than the one he saw upon his campaign visit in 2008. From the heights of excitement when Obama took office in 2009 to the depths of outrage when the NSA affair broke in 2013, Germany’s view of Washington today is sobered. Disappointment does not only stem from U.S. policy not developing under the Obama Administration in the way Germans may have hoped and anticipated. It is also because Europe, Germany, and the United States have all experienced unexpected challenges and change in the past decade. The world itself has become a sober place, and the U.S. President now has the opportunity to send a strong message about the strategic importance and mutual interest in the U.S.-German and larger U.S.-EU relationship.
When Obama came into office, he was hoping for a solid, reliable, and steady partner in the European Union, which, so it seemed, was implementing promising reforms with the Lisbon Treaty. But in 2016, the EU is shaken by multiple crises, even though it is stronger than it seems and the euro more resilient today than it was in 2010.
Over the past six years, Berlin has both willingly and reluctantly established itself as the leader of the European Union. As a result, the U.S. views it as a key interlocutor to address the most pressing issues on the U.S.-EU agenda. U.S. observers understand that Germany has played a crucial role in managing the sovereign debt crisis, despite strong criticism from within the EU and the U.S. of the economic and fiscal policies it imposed. Berlin has moreover taken the lead on the difficult relationship with an aggressive Russia after the annexation of Crimea and is widely viewed as the lynchpin holding the EU together on the issue of sanctions. The Merkel-led government has also pushed the European Union to review its policies on migration, and it has pre-negotiated a heavily criticized deal with Turkey while being censured by EU partners for its unilateral approach. And it seems to be pretty clear that if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is to make any progress, this will only happen if the German chancellor, along with the U.S. President, throws her political weight behind this agreement that is challenged by critical publics and policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Germany’s move into a key role in Europe occurred in the context of a broader process of the country reviewing and redefining its foreign and defense policy. Under the unexpected pressure of the crises and in given the weakness of its European partners, the maturing strategic debate in Germany shows an awareness that its role in the EU and NATO is only going to grow rather than shrink in the future. From Berlin’s perspective and despite disappointments about U.S. policy, like in solving the migration crisis for example, transatlantic relations continue to matter a lot in this process. This view is held by many far beyond government representatives. While public opinion is not back to previous high levels of trust, and may not be in the foreseeable future, the German Bundestag voted for a motion that outlines the strategic importance of the transatlantic relationship just ten days ahead of Obama’s visit.
This, however, should not be seen as enough. There is a need for closer strategic discussions across the Atlantic. Despite the existing close cooperation between the governments, risk assessments and strategic cultures diverge significantly on both sides of the Atlantic, as debates on China, the Middle East, and Russia show. In order to avoid uncoordinated action and open dissent that would weaken the transatlantic partners, more attention and political energy should be devoted to anticipating and tackling the divisive issues on the future transatlantic agenda.
Eight years after Obama’s first visit to Germany, transatlantic relations are not in crisis, but they are at a critical juncture. His visit to Hanover is an important initiative to set the course how Europeans and Americans attempt to weather the perfect storm of international and European crises – and the impending global power shifts yet to come when the next U.S. President takes office. If the West wants to hold together as a community of like-minded states and closely integrated economies in a rapidly changing world, crucial efforts need to be made to develop and communicate a new forward-looking narrative that can develop traction similar to the vision that the first post-Cold War decades provided. This will not be easy in times of multiple crises and increasing political polarization and inward looking publics. But that means it is all the more high time to remind Europeans and Americans of the strategic importance of the relationship.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.