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.