Merkel’s Final Visit to Washington
Angela Merkel will be meeting with the fourth American President during her long sixteen-year tenure as German Chancellor. This will be her last such meeting as the leader of Germany as she will step down following the German national election this coming September. Why is a lame duck Chancellor making the trip? What is her legacy for the U.S.-Germany relationship? And what are the prospects for the relationship with the post Merkel government in Berlin?
Everyone in Washington knows she is on her way out and will have a limited impact on German policy in her waning days as Chancellor, a point made clear by her failure to push through an EU summit with Putin. The visit comes after a recent foray by her chief Foreign Policy advisor to Washington in which the key contentious issue between the two sides, the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, was discussed. The Biden Administration dropped American sanctions on this project despite Congressional opposition and the reluctance of his own State Department to lift the sanctions. The U.S. needs Germany for its longer-term policies with Russia and China and Biden put these larger strategic priorities ahead of the tactical ones which went counter to his strategic goals. Merkel has made it clear that NS2 was a go and it makes little sense to oppose a train which has left the station. But she also knows that this decision comes with expectations for reciprocal actions.
Biden’s top priority is to restore the damage done to the transatlantic relationship and especially to the U.S.-Germany relationship done by the Trump Administration. The former President had gone out of his way to single out Merkel and Germany as more of an adversary than ally. The visit will serve the symbolic purpose of “American is Back” by highlighting that the U.S.-Germany relationship is “back,” and the Trump approach so slavishly executed by his ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, is over.
The Merkel Legacy
This visit also allows a closing perspective on Merkel’s legacy for the relationship. Here the picture is decidedly mixed. Merkel is a transactional leader who has had to manage coalition governments during her tenure, mostly with the Social Democratic party. In addition, she is a cautious, rational leader shaped not only by the fractious German political system but also by her training as a scientist in East Germany, her gender, and her religion. She is not only the first woman Chancellor but the first Protestant leader of her largely Catholic party. Her leadership has been characterized by crisis responses rather than initiatives and a strong geo-economic focus.
Despite these constraints, Merkel has managed to hold Europe together in the midst of Brexit, euro crises, and aggression from Russia in Ukraine. She has also managed relations with Washington through four very different presidencies. Merkel dealt with the whiplash of those experiences with steadfast focus on negotiating through them, a strategy she used both at home, in Brussels in dealing with the EU, or with Washington. While many of her counterparts often nursed egos and narcissism, Merkel maintained a composure that earned her the sixteen years in office while watching other leaders come and go. Merkel guided Germany toward being a more confident and indeed respected leader on the world stage. But she did not seek to fundamentally change the consensus in Germany, especially on defense policy.
What Next? Merkelism without Merkel
That experience will be missing in a new government in Berlin regardless of the composition of the coalition. A potential coalition between the leader of the CDU, Armin Laschet, with the Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock, will bring two individuals who have limited experience in dealing with the complexity of Washington politics. That was also true of Angela Merkel when she took office in 2005 when U.S.-Germany relations was at one its lowest points. The new Chancellor will be welcomed by an American President and his Secretary of State, both of whom recently stated how important the relationship with Berlin is for the United States.
The challenges and choices Germany still faces require more recognition that the relationship with the United States is “back” but also betting that Germany can exercise the responsibility for both protecting the Europe that has enabled Germany to become its most important partner. The expectations from Washington will be shaped primarily around a new set of challenges from climate and health to the new geopolitics emerging in China’s rise and Moscow’s threats, while sustaining both the values and the institutions linking democracies challenged by autocracies. Whether Germany’s new leadership is ready to partner with those expectations remains unclear. A post Merkel government will not likely veer significantly away from the course Merkel took as it was largely in sync with the German public. Laschet has made it clear that he will continue a geoeconomic approach toward China and Russia and has warned of a new cold war with Beijing. Baerbock and the Greens will push for a tougher stand on human rights. Neither seems interested in redefining the parameters of security which remains a political landmine in German politics, especially in an election year.
In her meeting with Biden, the Chancellor may try to provide a framework to understand how German leaders will approach these questions while Biden in turn outlines his strategies and expectations. But they will both be aware that the U.S.-Germany relationship is on hold during a transitional period in which the two countries are redefining how, when, where and why they need each other. The answers recently discussed at the G7 and NATO summits were prelude to policy decisions yet to be taken. They need each other but less than during the Cold War and in different ways. So, while the relationship is clearly stronger than it was under Trump, the old America is not “back,” and the Germans know it.
When Angela Merkel was still an unknown political figure in the German Democratic Republic in the spring of 1989, another American President outlined what he thought the U.S.-Germany relationship means. It was George Herbert Walker Bush who framed it as partnership in leadership. He added: “leadership has a constant companion: responsibility.” Over three decades later, Germany continues to struggle with this companion. As Merkel walks out of the Chancellory for the final time, her successor will be no less challenged as will U.S.-Germany relations.
This article originally appeared in the National Interest.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.