On her two-day trip to Washington last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel spent four and a half hours in conversation and a working lunch with President Barack Obama, with a visit to the White House capped by a look at Michelle Obama’s vegetable garden.

Merkel’s visit was chiefly intended as an ostentatious display of German-American unity on the Ukraine crisis, discussion of which Obama said took up 80 percent of his time with Merkel. President Obama lavished public praise on Chancellor Merkel as a close “friend,” “ally,” and “partner.”

The Chancellor’s agenda was threefold: the Ukrainian crisis; NSA intelligence-gathering in Germany; and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would create the largest free trade area ever.

The talks brought some progress on dealing with Vladimir Putin’s efforts to destabilize Ukraine, as Merkel has also spoken on the phone with Putin as many as ten times since the crisis began—the last time on the very eve of her departure for Washington. The Chancellor and the President seem to have agreed on an eventual third round of sanctions against Russia. They “may be inevitable,” according to Merkel, if Ukraine is so chaotic that free presidential elections cannot be held on May 25 as planned. But, “we do not want them,” she added.

No progress seems to have been made on restricting NSA and other American intelligence operations on German soil. An American leak to The New York Times just before Merkel arrived blamed Germans for February’s “collapse” of talks on German demands for a “no-spy agreement.” Merkel announced that a “cyber-dialogue” would continue, but Obama was even vaguer, only mentioning a discussion of ways to reconcile national security with personal privacy.

While Merkel expressed her hope that TTIP negotiations would bring about an agreement by 2015, hefty lobbying by business interests in both Congress and the Bundestag on matters like regulatory standards is complicating the talks. Merkel pushed TTIP in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Strikingly, little or nothing emerged on several issues central to the German-American relationship.

NATO was never mentioned. Nothing was said about possible military measures to deter Putin from further annexations, such as Crimea, about which Obama and Merkel have fumed a bit, but been powerless to stop. And most surprisingly, no strategies were proposed to diminish European dependence on Russian gas, such as “reverse flows” of gas from the West to European countries, or infrastructure creation in America and Europe to enable shipments of American liquid natural gas.

No detailed agreement seems to have been reached either on a third round of sanctions beyond those on Russian business leaders, Putin’s advisers, and banks. Many American politicians and experts favor sanctions on whole sectors, such as finance, energy, and weapons exports, but few Germans do.

The Merkel visit illustrated a growing problem: Germany’s membership in the European Union (EU) inhibits its bilateral dealings with America, especially on security and defense, a field where the EU has no strategy—or, at best, an embryonic one. Economic sanctions against Russia are a defense weapon, but unilateral American actions are ineffective without sanctions on the part of the EU. As Merkel pointed out at a dinner with six U.S. Senators, reaching agreement among twenty-eight EU members on sanctions is not easy. While the United States would prefer to deal bilaterally with Germany on such issues, this may become much harder as the EU evolves from an economic, commercial, and banking union toward a political one.

After French President François Hollande visited Obama several weeks ago, he announced that trust had been restored as far as France was concerned. Merkel did not say the same for Germany when questioned by journalists, adding that “differences remain” or there are still “difficulties to surmount” on problems like NSA spying or sanctions against Russia.

Merkel is well positioned to do more to help deter further aggression from Putin. Former U.S. ambassador to Germany Robert Kimmitt has called her the most powerful chancellor ever to visit Washington. She certainly is the most powerful political leader in Europe. At home, she enjoys overwhelming support among voters, with the Green and Left opposition weak and divided. Traditionally, voters have gone along with the government’s foreign policy decisions, even risky ones.

Among the measures that the United States can reasonably expect from Merkel is a boost in defense spending from the current, pathetic 1.3 percent of GDP to at least the NATO target of 2 percent. The sound federal budget would certainly permit such an increase. Also, Germany should send at least naval and air contingents to NATO deployments to reassure the Baltic countries, Poland, and Romania.

A NATO strategy for dealing with a Russia bent on expanding its power and influence abroad must be in place by the alliance’s summit meeting next September. Merkel’s Germany should play a leading role in framing that strategy.

  • Christian Schulz

    “Among the measures that the United States can reasonably expect from Merkel is a boost in defense spending from the current, pathetic 1.3 percent of GDP to at least the NATO target of 2 percent.”

    Anyone who thinks an increase of defense spending from 33 Billion € to roughly 50 Billion € (which would amount to those 2% give or take a few million) has no knowledge of what modern Germany is like. Military spending is highlyunpopular, especially when the society feels there is a massive need for investments in civilian infrastructure, education and health (as germans currently do) and with the €-Crisis maybe dormant but not solved (and with Germany liable for considerable sums if push came to shove). Nobody in the coalition government will expose him- or herself and suggest to spend more on the military … not when the only socially accepted use for armed forces is self-defense (and defense of a NATO ally).

    • K Bledowski


      It all boils down to how much Germans value freedom and sovereignty. There are always tradeoffs to make; butter vs. guns, etc. But no German should assume that NATO or the U.S. will forever underwrite German sovereignty and security with a check drawn entirely on the U.S. Treasury. Some part of that payment has to come from German taxpayers.

      • Christian Schulz

        Morning from Germany, Mr. Bledowski!

        There are several fundamental problems with your outlook (from the POV of a german citizen).

        a) Germans do not feel threatened in the military sense. What the Baltic States or Poland feel isn’t known here and if it were I bet it would be ridiculed as scaremongering. Why? Because, deep down, germans remember the Cold War and how MAD hung over our heads all the time Any conflict between NATO and Russia has the (however distant) potential of going thermonuclear and nobody believes that Putin is THAT stupid.
        Without a direct and palpable threat against Germany the german society will remain steadfastly opposed to higher military spending. And no, “Alliance burden sharing” is not a valid reason for most people – precisely because the NATO has involved Germany in foreign deployments and missions which, according to the most popular reading of our history, we shouldn’t have participated in.

        b) Germany does not have a place for military force in its foreign policy toolbox, regarless of what pundits, foreign observers or officials say. It was deliberately and explicitly removed after WW2 and today both the society and the political class is steeped in that belief. Apart from that the psychological effect of Article 26 of the Basic Law (preparations for and carrying out a war of aggression are unconstitutional and shall be a criminal offense) means that Germany cannot offer the leadership other nations ask of us – because the citizens interpret an offensive, possibly even pro-active application of military force as a violation of Article 26 (even if just subconsciously). As such we’re reduced to following other nations in such undertakings and without any feeling of “ownership” public support will always be lacking. And that also means that there is nothing Germans would use military force for – apart from self-defense.

        c) Germany is asked to carry much of Europe economically and our government’s policies have been criticized for not being “profligte” enough. At the same time Germany is liable for mind-boggling sums both in guarantees and through TARGET 2 mechanisms. On top of that the official debt level of Germany is overing slightly below 80% of GDP and people here have a heightened sensititvity for that kind of debt load. Public pressure to reduce it is already considerable.
        Given the “unimportance” of defense issues in german politics there is zero societal (and political) support for that …

        d) Neither “freedom” nor “sovereignty” mean overly much to ordinary germans as concepts. For starters we don’t attach as much emphasis on freedom as the US does, simply because we tick differently here. On top of that Germany has neither been totally free nor really sovereign for nearly 4 decades and the very first thing our own government did once full sovereignty was gained was to sign part of it away … without us citizens being asked.

        I almost with NATO would force the issue of the german defense budget, even if it meant Germany was thrown out of NATO. Only massive (and I mean M A S S I V E) external pressure could force german politicians to alter their financial priorities and force a debate about the role of the military that, until today, hasn’t taken place. Targeting the german society is pointless, it has remained steadfast and unrelenting in its position and refuses to even discuss the issue (the “friendly disinterest” former Federal President Köhler diagnosed). But even a higher defense budget would not fix the basic construction errors of the Federal Republic’s political caste: a total cluelessness about military affairs, a near universal avoidance and disinterest in strategy (unless it pertains one’s own career) and a political culture that shoves the military to the fringes of society. That can’t be changed through external pressure and I’m beginning to doubt it can be changed at all.

  • K Bledowski


    (Almost) high noon here in San Diego – fortunately only in the literal sense. I believe we’re on the same wavelength.

    You and I will agree that nobody is passing a judgement over how much the Germans should cherish freedom and severeighnty. Only very recently a large part of your country was neither free nor sovereign (in a real sense). It’s a public choice only the Germans can make.

    If the German polity “has no place for a military force”, it should consider leaving NATO. NATO undewrites German security in exchange for Germany chipping in with its own pledge to defend others and form a common front to external threats. As you will agree, Germany can’t have a cake and eat it. There is a tradeoff between butter and guns. Given “zero” political support for military spending that you bring out, leaving NATO seems to me the natural next step.

    Where you and I will disagree is about “Germany being thrown out of NATO”. I can’t see that happening. Germany should leave on its own volition, following on the conscience of its social choice.

  • Christian Schulz

    And there you have nailed the fundamental dishonesty of the german political class – Have the cake and eat it, too. Yes, I agree that Germany ought to suspend its membership and do some soul-searching WRT the military but neither is going to happen, I’m afraid.

    On a personal note: I don’t believe increasing defense spending AT THIS TIME is sensible because the fundamental problems of the german society with its military wouldn’t be solved through it. The utter cluelessness about military affairs means that spending 50 Billion € on defense would simply be a 50 Billion € state subsidy for the defense corporations … but not a sensible, useable and capable military force with a budget like this. Speaks volumes, doesn’t it?

  • K Bledowski

    What is troubling to me as a faraway observer is the German insouciance toward national security. Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark – to name just a few – don’t take their security for granted. In fact, in some of these societies there is lively debate about strengthening defense and tightening military ties with others. I know of few countries in the world which take their national security for granted. Germany is indeed a lucky place in that respect.

  • Christian Schulz

    My way of reading this: It’s a core pillar of the post-war german society. The distrust, suspicion and disinterest towards armed forces (as central provider for national security) is an emotional state of the immediate post-war era that transformed itself into a national culture. Today’s germans cannot understand the depth of disillusion and disgust for the military that the survivors of WW2 felt but we soaked up the culture that came out of this mindset. Pretty much the same as modern US citizens don’t have the experience with persecution and oppression that drove the first european settlers to America but their disdain for autocracy and their drive for freedom shaped modern attitudes towards freedom and the role of the state in the US.