President Obama’s speech in Berlin this week received mixed reviews from different audiences—a sign that German-American relations are actually in decent shape. The pattern of praise and criticism is illustrative of a relationship defined by a mix of domestic and foreign policy interests. Some of these interests overlap and some clash, but, on balance, they make up a stable equation between two countries which have a genuine stake in addressing shared challenges.

Obama spent a good part of his speech referencing the past half century of German-American relations. And there is a good story there. He tried to build on that past by pointing to how legacies can help anticipate the future agenda. Standing on the former front line of the Cold War, his message was clear: we overcame the wall which once stood here in Berlin, but now we need to overcome other challenges elsewhere around the globe.

There was a widespread critique in the German press that Obama had failed to deliver a memorable line in the speech as Presidents Kennedy or Reagan had done in the past. His speech was billed as a bit eclectic, aimed at multiple audiences and echoing some of his second inaugural address in Washington six months ago. The announcement of a new arms reduction initiative went down well in Berlin—less so in Moscow. He also hit other relevant buttons on climate, immigration, and seeking justice throughout the globe. His aim to encourage Germany to join in that effort referenced the fact that there are millions of people today who are struggling to achieve what Americans and Germans in 2013 already enjoy. How that message can be transformed into common strategic policies remains a serious challenge.

The clash over the U.S. policy of internet surveillance was certainly not resolved. Obama’s quick reference to the need to close Guantanamo was an awkward moment in his speech, given his earlier pledges to do just that have so far produced no result. These two subjects—U.S. surveillance and Guantanamo—represent the divergence of domestic political debates on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the difficulties in understanding them. They also represent different approaches to the parameters of security, privacy and the perception of threats.

The speech was hailed here in Berlin as a good speech, not a great one. Yet how could it have been viewed otherwise? To compare it with the past presidential speeches in Berlin is pointless. The world of 2013 requires responding to a complicated, and indeed contradictory, set of challenges that can certainly to be reduced to simple black and white bumper sticker slogans. They are also not defined by a complete consensus on responses to those challenges and the choices which go with them.

Obama essentially invited Germans to broaden their lens in looking at global responsibilities. That of course connects with the ongoing debate in Germany about its leadership role—in Europe first and then on the global stage. The latest issue of The Economist refers to Germany as the “reluctant hegemon” that has had no serious strategic discussion about what its leadership might mean. That description angers some Germans who point to multiple engagements at the European and international levels, including supplying military as well as economic resources.

Nevertheless, the reality of Germany’s top economic pole position in the EU is undeniable, as is the influence which goes with it. The real disconnect comes with reference to German reluctance to compliment that economic position with the articulation of strategic interests and forward looking strategies for Germany and for Europe. In that context, Germany chooses not to lead. In Washington, this German situation is recognized with some level of disappointment; it hopes Berlin can help share the burden of U.S. leadership not just in Europe, but also globally.  The current situation in Syria is just one of the serious challenges which exemplify the need for a concerted response in the transatlantic community. Yet that is limited by the lack of a consensus on goals and and means to achieve them.

In light of Germany’s situation, the critique of Obama’s Speech as having missed an opportunity to challenge Merkel to assume more leadership is in itself an admission of Germany’s own problem. The line that many German critics might have been looking for in Obama’s speech should instead be appearing in the speeches of Germany’s own leaders. Yesterday, Chancellor Merkel stated that the transatlantic relationship  “is the key to freedom, security, and prosperty for all.” But Germany should not need the American president to identify its own role.

It is inevitable that the struggle Germany is facing with in defining its own role is tied to that of the future role of Europe as a whole. The danger is that the domestic debates throughout Europe become a preoccupation of the respective leaderships in national capitals at the expense of the European project. Those signs are already visible in London and elsewhere on the continent. The commitment to Europe has always been strong in Germany, but that has been tied to a sense of security and stability under the European umbrella. If that equation is questioned, as it has been in other European capitals, there is serious trouble ahead.

President Obama echoed President Kennedy in his encouragement for Europe as a transatlantic partner fifty years ago. Yet his message was to encourage Germany and Europe to think well beyond its own horizons. That message also holds for a United States that needs to think and act globally in cooperation with its partners, including more transparency about its own strategies and policies and a more inclusive discussion about its choices. The backlash against the surveillance practice among Germans should serve as a reminder.

For now, the asymmetry in transatlantic relations remains. The iconic attraction of an American President in Berlin is in part a legacy of the past as well as a reflection of current power distribution.

After German unification, the future was going to be about Europe, not only about Germany. The future of transatlantic relations is now, more than ever, about much more than the United States, Germany or Europe – there are global issues at stake. All the more reason to be talking about what that future is going to look like. While it is important to know how we got to where we are, on both sides of the Atlantic there needs to be more frank exchanges about that future.

Further analysis on President Obama’s visit to Berlin and Germany’s role in Europe:

“Economist special report: Europe’s Reluctant Hegemon”, by Zanny Minton Beddoes, who recently spoke at AICGS’ 30th anniversary symposium in Berlin entitled “Measuring Expectations and Capabilities: The State of the German-American Dialogue”

  • Rob Houck

    The Germans have little idea how dysfunctional our government has become. Obama cannot very well go there and complain that he can’t get anything accomplished because of Republican opposition. In 2008, the Republicans complained that he was an international rock star. Partly due to the realities of governing but partly due to the split in their own party, they can’t tar President Obama with the rock star brush. I DID note that he spent quality time with Dirk Nowitzki. Friends say they took it as a nice sign that Chancellor Merkel used the “Du” word with him.

  • K Bledowski

    The potpourri of motifs and little in headline-grabbing one-liners in Obama’s speech should not surprise. Both reflect the multitude of challenges but few actual policies that Germany and the U.S. could agree on, grab, and run away with. You can’t blame Obama for not pressing publicly for the TIPP. Grandstanding is over, time to quietly lower expectations and prepare for drab haggling. Not exactly what you want to brag about in a major speech. I also second J. Janes’ contention that not nudging Merkel “to assume more leadership” was judicious. Up to the Germans to define what and how they want to conduct their policies. The last time an American gave “advice” to the Europeans – Tim Geithner in Wrocław, Poland – he was chased out of town by two European finance ministers.

    Germany is a more important ally of the United States than most Germans wish to admit. There is no coincidence in Obama’s two Berlin speeches along with the one-liners by Reagan H.W. Bush, Kennedy, et al. The glitzy stuff is obvious. The beef is harder to spot.

  • Ulrich Hewer

    Obama’s speech, delivered in front of a small audience, will be forgotten quickly, as it did not contain important ideas or messages. That’s ok – not every speech can be visionary, not even from Obama. The speech reflected, among other things, that the major global scenery has shifted away from Europe. Both the summit preceding the President’s Berlin visit and his speech were hardly noticed in other parts of the world. Should governments and heads of states continue to attend such inconsequential meetings ?