What to Watch: Angela Merkel’s Final Visit to Washington as Chancellor
“Angela Merkel will pass back the torch for upholding democracy to President Joe Biden when she visits the White House this week. During the Trump years, the title of leader of the free world was thrust upon the longest-serving head of government in the European Union. The no-drama chancellor might have shrugged off the attention, but did use many opportunities, for example during a Harvard commencement speech, to remind us of the need to strengthen democratic values. After all, during her last term in office the far-right Alternative for Germany party (AfD) became the largest opposition force in parliament. President Joe Biden would like to make Germany an indispensable partner in countering internal and external threats to our democracies, but for that he needs Angela Merkel and more importantly her successor to be less wobbly on the latter when it comes to Russia and China. He will have to convey to her that Germany’s policy of Wandel durch Handel (change through trade) has long exceeded its shelf life, and that coordinating a united front against authoritarian actors will safeguard our democracies in the long run.”
Jackson Janes (Senior Fellow, Washington) and Stephen Szabo
Adapted from an op-ed published by The National Interest, read the full piece: “Will Merkel’s Final Washington Visit Improve the German-American Relationship?”
“This visit allows a closing perspective on Angela Merkel’s legacy for the U.S.-German relationship. Here the picture is decidedly mixed. Merkel is a transactional leader who has had to manage coalition governments during her tenure. 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. 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.
In her meeting with Biden, Chancellor Merkel may try to provide a framework to understand how German leaders will approach a new set of shared challenges: from climate and health to the new geopolitics emerging in China’s rise and Moscow’s threats. But they will both be aware that the German American relationship is on hold during a transitional period. They need each other, but less than during the Cold War-- and in different ways. While the relationship is clearly stronger than it was under Trump, the old America is not back and the Germans know it.”
“For Biden, the meeting has one overwhelming goal: to pave the way for deeper cooperation on China. Germany is central for Washington because of its key role in the EU, and because of its relationship with Beijing. Yet this very relationship makes it difficult for Merkel and Biden to agree. In the eyes of the German chancellor, the US wants to force Germany to cut business relations with China and take side in a "new Cold War." Merkel wants to use her weight, and the weight of the EU, to prevent a more adversarial relationship with China to emerge, not just because of German business interests, but also because of her deep-seated aversion against "Cold War".
It's unclear whether Biden will be able to convince Merkel that his approach to China is far more sophisticated, and that he seeks genuine partnership with Germany. It's also unclear whether Merkel understands that there is a unique window of opportunity for Germany to influence the emerging US strategy on China, as team Biden will start to roll out its China policy in autumn.”
“The visit is a well-deserved sendoff for Chancellor Merkel, with whom President Biden has had a long, productive relationship – especially while he was vice president in the Obama administration. At the same time, Biden is looking forward and will want to engage a favorite partner one more time to try to push for strong transatlantic cooperation on some of his key agenda items. As the political picture in Germany ahead of the September elections still looks anything but clear (and could stay that way for months after the election if coalition-building is as difficult as it was last time) the Biden team may be right in hoping that the outgoing Chancellor can help them set the stage – also for EU partners. Nord Stream 2 will, as always, be a point of contention (and on this and China Merkel is likely to disappoint) – but the recent agreement on the Airbus-Boeing dispute (which, at 17 years outdates even Merkel’s time in office) shows there is a will to turn good relations between leaders into outcomes.”
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.