As in Berlin on 11/9 and New York on 9/11, events across Germany on 9/22 will momentously change German-American relations.  Added to this, in May 2014, election will be held for the European Parliament, followed by a complete change of leadership in the EU, including the Commission and European Council. In November 2014, the United States will have mid-term Congressional elections, starting the run-up to the presidential election in November 2016. The window of opportunity for Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama to advance a joint German-American agenda beyond the influence of campaign considerations is small. Or, to be more precise: elections in 2014 and 2016 will influence the next phase of the German-American agenda as much as 9/22.

Based on domestic disputes and diverging choices, the common German-American agenda can become subject to tensions in Germany―and the EU―or in the United States. Here are the three most vexed issues:

1. Free trade: Negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) started in July, but they are far from beyond the most tedious cliffs. Germany is not negotiating on its own, but as part of an EU mandate. Developing a joint EU mandate in early 2013 has already proven to be difficult, given France’s restrictive positions regarding agriculture and electronic services, including media. The ongoing discussion on banking union and possible fiscal union in the euro zone can easily impact TTIP negotiations. In the U.S., the more protectionist pressures from economically-distressed regions will influence the scope of action of the U.S. Trade Representative. Renewed discourse on American protectionism, American jobs for Americans, and similar measures can very easily hijack the forthcoming 2014 and 2016 election cycles. The Chancellor’s Office and the White House alone cannot decide whether TTIP becomes a tool to accelerate a return to global free trade negotiations. However, if TTIP gets stuck during the remaining years of the Merkel-Obama era, it will be blamed on them as much as on anybody else―right or wrong as that may be. Hence, post 9/22, Chancellor Merkel and President Obama should do their utmost to accelerate TTIP negotiations even if they are not alone behind the stirring wheel. Their leadership skills are at stake when it comes to defining the public discourse: will TTIP be seen for its opportunities or its problems and limits? The answer given to this fundamental question is a leadership issue, linked to the legacy of both Merkel and Obama.

2. Middle East. The worst experience of past years is the recognition of any external pressure or mediation’s limited influence on the Arab transformation and on solving the Israel-Palestine conflict. Germany tends to focus on normative issues, including human rights; the United States emphasizes strategic issues, such as geopolitical implications. No side has seriously succeeded with its approach. The truth of the matter is that the Arab transformation―whatever its outcome―will take at least a decade, and the outcome is unpredictable. A lot of time has been wasted in the search for a two-state solution in the Middle East. The Merkel-Obama era will most likely continue to be defined more by events in the region than by a coherent, pro-active joint forward strategy. This is a frustrating but realistic assessment. At best, Chancellor Merkel and President Obama can hope to hold NATO together, bring Russia on board, assuage Israel’s security concerns, and prevent provoking more anti-western radicalizations in the Middle East―and beyond.  Post 9/22, Chancellor Merkel and President Obama will have to reassess whether “leading from behind” is the new overall Western strategy vis-à-vis an uncertain region or whether they can find common ground for realistic but forward-oriented joint initiatives and a better way to genuinely engage with all players in the region.

3.  Global governance: Although a diversified global order―and disorder―is increasing, traditional mechanisms of global governance and effective multilateralism have increasingly encountered their limits. Germany keeps on preaching multilateral inclusion as its global economic interests, including vis-à-vis China, are better defined than global security or political interests. The United States tends to continuously match its global presence with a rather clumsy and security-dominated approach to manage global order. In reality, neither the old multilateralism, including United Nations-steered processes, the G-20, G-8, or the WTO, nor the new realities of a transforming globe with more veto capacities and non-state actors can be easily dealt with. The legacy of the Merkel-Obama era will also be measured by the degree to which they contribute to a more effective management of global affairs―that is, both global crises and global opportunities. For now, a more critical attitude toward Russia, a more sober perception of the power of the BRICS group, and an almost helpless apathy toward failed, failing, and frozen conflict situations―from Somalia to Afghanistan post-2014 and global energy to migration―define the joint German-American agenda. The Chancellor’s Office and the White House are usually united in both rhetoric and in a certain helplessness when it comes to influencing the increasingly complex world in which they claim to be indispensable pillars of stability projection―from data protection to Russia; from Afghanistan to North Korea; and from global warming to the cooling of global economic growth.

All in all, post 9/22 expectations of Chancellor Merkel and President Obama must be realistic and pragmatic. Neither side will go into history as a failure or a hero. Their legacies are interwoven with that of the future path of their countries and societies at large. For that matter, Germany and the United States as a whole will continue to remain strong pillars of global prosperity and peace, indispensable―when united―in managing global affairs and crises. They will continue to remain tied down like Gulliver by the Lilliputians entering a post-hegemonic world. This is the broad and abstract picture well painted. German and American leaders post 9/22 will primarily remain―more than they wish―exposed to events that are both unpredictable and all too often uncomfortable. Skillfully steering their respective state’s politics and societies through troubled waters is the ultimate expectation we can have of their leadership.

Dr. Kühnhardt is Director at the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) and Professor of Political Science at Bonn University.