The VIP Treatment
Chancellor Angela Merkel is getting the full VIP treatment on June 7 in Washington, DC, from President Obama and the White House: A State Dinner, the Medal of Freedom Award, plus a lunch hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden. There is not much more the Chancellor could expect in the way of American-style royal treatment. In making that effort, there is an expectation that the investment is worth it. Despite ups and downs in relations between Berlin and Washington, Germany remains an important if sometimes difficult partner.

Amidst all this fanfare, we are seeing the German-American relationship depicted as a high priority for the United States. The rationale is clear: Germany is the world’s fourth-largest economy and a major player in the web of global economic relations, be it in the G8, the G20, or the many other international institutions shaping the world’s economic health. Germany is also the economic leader of Europe and the U.S. has a high-stakes investment in the future of that enormous market. With some nervous news making the rounds about double-dips and further Greek bailouts, Germany has a strong hand in determining which way the economic wind will be blowing.

Second, the EU is an important partner for the U.S. in dealing with many challenges around the globe, even if relations are sometimes strained and complex. Germany’s key position in Brussels is critical to the decision-making process when it comes to marshaling the EU’s resources and the capabilities, and Germany has several important relationships with key countries like Russia where the U.S. is also pursuing important interests. And, despite military budget cuts, Germany remains an important member of NATO at a time when the alliance is struggling to define its mission in the twenty-first century.

Building on Twentieth-Century Legacies
Post-World War II, German-American relations have been based on the legacy of a unique combination of interests and goals which has defined the past and the present. The need now is to build on those legacies in defining the future, which is going to require adjusting those relations to a new combination of interests in a changing environment. That will not be an easy path for either the U.S. or Germany but President Obama is demonstrating on June 7 that he sees clear benefits in trying to forge this path.

In the second half of the twentieth century, there was no country in the world in which the U.S. invested more of its national interests than in the Federal Republic of Germany. As a main front line of the Cold War, millions of Americans in uniform were posted in West Germany for almost five decades. From the Berlin Airlift to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fate of Germany was at the core of U.S. foreign policy. German unification in 1990 was the high point of a common strategy which signaled the end of the Cold War and the expansion of a unifying Europe.

Since unification, the German-American relationship has evolved within a new post-Cold War environment in which the web of shared interests between Germany and the U.S. has become more complex, expansive, and at times has generated arguments. Germany, no longer at the forefront in the frozen framework of the Cold War, is now confronting more challenges and choices than it had two decades ago. Not all of Germany’s policy choices run parallel to those in Washington. We saw that in the conflict over Iraq in 2003 and again this year over Libya. We see it also in conflicts over differing responses to the financial crisis and in differences over climate change priorities and policies.

Merkel as Representative of 2011 Germany
In many ways, Chancellor Merkel embodies today’s Germany. She emerged from a divided Berlin and German unification to become twice-elected as Germany’s first female Chancellor, and continues to symbolize the challenges of a united Germany.

Merkel’s political orientation is a mix of her East German experiences prior to 1989 and her engagement in a united Germany after 1990. Her Germany is one in which the vast majority of the population was born – as she was – after 1950, without personal memories of the horrors of the war. Her Germany is the largest and most powerful economy in Europe in terms of global reach and profit. Her Germany is a key connection between Europe and Russia and is the most important partner of the eastern European nations as they have become new members of the European Union and NATO. And her Germany is a major factor in the large network of international organizations in which Germany carries influence.

In short, Merkel’s Germany is not the Germany of the past – although the legacy of the past still remains part of Germany’s role in the world. More than six decades after World War II, Germany generates interest and respect, as does its Chancellor. Forbes magazine labeled Merkel as one of the most powerful political leaders in the world for four years in a row while Germany has been identified as one of the most world’s most admired countries in the 2000s.

On her way to Washington, Merkel was awarded the Jawaharlal Nehru-Prize for International Understanding, which puts her in the company of Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, and her predecessor Helmut Kohl. And this is only one more accolade among many she has received over the last ten years from countries and organizations all over the world.

In light of all this, there seems to be ample grounds for President Obama’s investment of pomp and circumstances in Merkel’s visit.

Is the Timing Right for an Award?
Yet some critical questions have been raised about the merits of awarding Merkel the Medal of Freedom. Wasn’t it Chancellor Merkel who decided to have Germany abstain from the vote in the UN Security Council on Libya a few weeks ago in direct conflict with its allies? Has the Chancellor been taking sufficient lead in dealing with the euro crisis or has she been too hesitant about it? Why did the Chancellor pull an about-face on the use of nuclear energy following the Fukushima incident without thinking about the consequences not only for Germany but also its European neighbors?

During her seven years in office, Chancellor Merkel has generated a lot of criticism in Germany among both her supporters and her opponents for allegedly being indecisive and not having much of a vision for the future. Her domestic electoral record has been consistently bad, especially following a string of regional elections in which her political party and her coalition government is declining significantly in the polls. In fact – like Obama – she seems to be more popular abroad than at home.

Germany’s Modern Leadership
But Merkel is a good representative of a Germany which is influential but cautious, also more self-confident but hesitant about its role. Germany’s legacies impact greatly on its leadership, and as such there is a constraint built into the struggle over how Germany can and should exercise leadership. This has been exemplified by a reference former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer made to Germany’s role as “leading, but from the second row.”

Chancellor Merkel’s leadership reflects this conundrum. There is a tendency to exhibit pride of ownership when it comes to Germany’s economic power, but then a parallel reticence to take up responsibility when it comes to dealing with conflicts as in the case of Libya. It is as if Germany is still a reactive power, responding to external pressures rather than being a proactive leader. And there is a deficit of debate in Germany exactly about this challenge, which should be led by the Chancellor.

Continuing the Partnership
Debates and arguments over what is needed to meet threats and risks will continue to define a future relationship between Berlin and Washington. More important is whether we can agree on what those risks and threats represent. Especially in an era of limited resources, the U.S. will be looking for partners to deal with both assessments and strategy in a fast-changing world; a twenty-first century Germany can continue to be one of these partners.

The relationship between Germany and the United States is no longer defined primarily by the legacies of the past, as can be seen in the two leaders standing next to each other at the White House on June 7. They both represent countries which now look vastly different than they did when Germany was divided and the Cold War defined the world, and there is a similarly different equation of interests and goals in today’s world. The legacies which made it possible to achieve German unification over two decades ago still form the basis of common set of values. The challenge today is to translate the legacies of the past into tools for dealing with the future.


This essay appeared in the June 3, 2011, AICGS Advisor.