As Barack Obama prepares to take the oath as President of the United States for a second time, the level of anticipation both in the U.S. and in Germany reflects what has been experienced over the past four years.

For the U.S., the faceoff between the White House and the House of Representatives remains locked in place, and there has yet to be any indication that things will change. The interpretation of the election results from November 6 of last year represents different world views, with both Democrats and Republicans claiming mandates. The clashes across both domestic and foreign policies continue with the same intensity.

President Obama has the next four years to set his priorities in this tense atmosphere without having to consider another election campaign. However, the members of the House and a third of the Senate are already anticipating the 2014 elections, which will impact not only their individual futures but also the legacy of the Obama era. In this difficult setting, the president has to decide how to allocate his attention to those foreign policy issues that will be a part of his legacy—decisions he can expect to accomplish with the assistance of the Congress where needed and those that he will decide to push through on his own.

One pervasive question being discussed in Germany about Obama’s second term is: are we relevant?

Like many Americans who were supporters of the president in 2008, Germans are somewhat less enthusiastic now. The fact that the vast majority wanted to have Obama re-elected over a much less popular and certainly more unknown Mitt Romney does not completely translate into the same fascination with the Obama that attracted a quarter of a million Germans to hear him speak in Berlin in the summer of 2008. Some begrudge the fact that Guantanamo remains operational or that Obama did not move much on the climate change issue. Others don’t like his drone policy. There are also those who remain upset over the President’s lack of a state visit to Germany following his first election—despite pundits speculating about an alleged chilly relationship with Chancellor Merkel.

Yet the facts are that Germany has been a continuous factor on the President’s radar screen ever since he took office, even as Obama was confronting the worst economic threat to the U.S. since the great depression. During the past four years, the struggle with the economic crisis on both sides of the Atlantic required an enormous amount of interface between European leaders and Washington—with Angela Merkel in the middle of that maelstrom. Whether it be G8 or G20 meetings—given Germany’s weight and influence—the White House has been well aware of the importance of Germany’s key role, particularly when there were disagreements on strategy between Berlin and Washington. That role was underlined when the president hosted the chancellor on the lawn of the White House in 2011 with the sounds of James Taylor singing “you’ve got a friend” echoing in the background.

Nevertheless, even awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom does not necessarily mean that friends don’t disagree. Germany’s key role in keeping the euro zone from imploding caused strains not only throughout Europe, but also across the Atlantic. Washington’s calls for more aggressive responses to the crisis in Europe were met with push back from Berlin, which insisted on more austerity measures in the southern European neighbors. Nevertheless, it would appear that Merkel’s hesitant but consistent small steps, with the help of the European Central Bank, may have thwarted the crisis and calmed the markets—for now. Yet whatever the next steps are going to be, Germany is going to remain pivotal.

While there was never any doubt about Germany’s relevance on the economic policy front, Germany was also on the radar screen in Afghanistan, where German troops remain with the Americans even after others have withdrawn. That relevance will carry over well into the period beyond a military presence, specifically when the efforts to continue stabilizing Afghanistan take on new forms in assistance and support. Germany has already committed to that effort. Additionally, Germany has just supplied its NATO ally Turkey with Patriot Missiles to help deal with its border problems concerning Syria.

The continuing effort to forge a common European defense and security policy also involves German engagement, even if it remains a work in progress. Berlin’s unfortunate decision to abstain from the U.N. Security Council vote on Libya in 2010 certainly did not further that effort and, in fact, generated serious tensions within NATO. But the larger issue remains that of building a European defense capacity with adequate resources and financial commitments—a continuing challenge and also a potential transatlantic problem. The current situation in Mali following the French intervention there again raises a serious question about the strategic agenda for a European response to crises in the future. It remains to be seen whether there can be a European-wide response or whether there will be a continuing ad hoc reaction with major military powers like the UK and France doing the heavy lifting, while leaving Germany outside that parameter. The answer to this question will determine whether the EU can live up to a common defense and security posture.

Significant questions still linger in Washington about the asymmetry in NATO’s resources, both financial and military. If the struggle in the U.S. Congress during the next few years over the defense department budget continues to heat up, there will be an inevitable focus on why the U.S. carries the lion’s share of the alliance’s burdens. Specifically in the case of Germany, one can expect the feasibility of continuing to maintain sixty thousand U.S. troops there to come into question?

Other issues will keep Germany on the agenda during Obama’s second term in office. Efforts to generate a new trade agreement across the Atlantic are in motion at a time when the need for economic growth is vital for both sides. Enlarging the opportunities for investment and standardized regulations can open the door to more traffic across an already enormous economic bridge that dwarfs all others. Here again, the world champion exporter Germany plays a critical role as both an architect and engineer in this step within the EU. Additionally, the continuing conflict with Iran over its nuclear ambitions and the need to maintain strict sanctions coordinated between Europe and the EU with keep the need for cooperation present. As Iran’s largest trading partner, Germany has an important role in the next phase of negotiations with Teheran, as well as in the effort to find alternatives to military action being contemplated in Israel or the U.S.

Relations with Russia will also be of central importance for both Germany and the U.S. The strategic equation between Moscow and Washington has been deteriorating since President Putin re-assumed office. Negotiations over missile defense are sluggish at a time when the U.S. needs continued Russian help in supplying its presence in Afghanistan and in seeking solutions in Syria. On the other hand, Russia’s relations with Germany are the most important in Europe for Putin, as Germany has a strategic dependence on Russian oil and gas. This triangle of interests will keep Germany and the U.S. in each other’s strategic planning.

Europe is in need of a new narrative to remind its nearly five hundred million citizens what they are building together and why. In the United States, there is a noisy and contentious debate about the future course of the country. It is a debate heated up by pundits and politicians, but in actuality is made up of both fear about the future as well as a desire to meet the serious challenges at home and abroad. The 2012 election placed Obama in a position to shape that debate over the next four years. It will be important to both sides of the Atlantic that we listen carefully to these debates to perhaps discover common ground in the challenges we face, while also possibly learning about and sharing new solutions. It will be equally important to offer a redefined narrative about the need for that exchange. Today, our setting is not defined by a bipolar division but rather by global challenges.

All of these aforementioned issues will be on the agenda for any future meetings between Chancellor Merkel and President Obama. Should Angela Merkel be given a third term as chancellor in September of this year, those encounters will continue as they have in the past.

Of course, such a scenario would be true for whoever sits in the White House or in the Kanzleramt in Berlin. The web of interests would require it. Yet at the same time, we can see that the domestic pressures on both sides of the Atlantic are making it increasingly difficult for leaders to sell a persuasive case for partnership. The centrifugal forces of national or even regional interests impact the course of the European project today. The confrontations over the euro conjured up ghosts of the pasts in Greece, Spain and Portugal, as did the worries in Germany and elsewhere in northern Europe about the threats of inflation.

During the last half century, it has been the case that the personality of a specific American president continues to be of enormous importance in Germany. While President George W. Bush was roundly rejected in Germany, his father remains beloved. President Reagan asked Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, but even he was not as popular in his day as was a President Clinton battling domestic troubles of his own back home.

It happens that the 50th anniversary of the famous Berlin speech of Pres. Kennedy in 1963 will be celebrated in June of this year. Given the comparisons often made between Kennedy and Obama as youthful presidents with great popularity in Germany, perhaps that might be an opportunity for the president to visit Berlin and deliver a speech about the meaning of the German-American bond in this century.

Kennedy’s speech was framed, as was Germany at the time, by the Berlin Wall. Today, President Obama might choose to draw from another speech Kennedy gave the year before he came to Berlin. Even though it was also delivered at the height of the Cold War, its message rings as clearly today as it did when he gave it on the American Independence Day of July 4, 1962. It also echoes the words of Senator Obama in Berlin in 2008.

A half century ago, President Kennedy spoke of the spirit of transatlantic interdependence:

“That spirit of interdependence is today most clearly seen across the Atlantic Ocean. The nations of Western Europe, long divided by feuds far more bitter than any which existed among the 13 colonies, are today joining together, seeking, as our forefathers sought, to find freedom in diversity and in unity, strength. The United States looks on this vast new enterprise with hope and admiration. We do not regard a strong and united Europe as a rival but as a partner. We believe that a united Europe will be capable of playing a greater role in common defense; of responding more generously to the needs of poorer nations; and of joining with the United States and others in lowering trade barriers, resolving problems of commerce, commodities, and currency, and developing coordinated policies in all economic, political, and diplomatic areas. We see in such a Europe a partner with whom we can work on a basis of full equality in all the great and burdensome tasks of building and defending a community of free nations. It would be premature at this time to do more than indicate the high regard with which we view the formation of this partnership. The first order of business is for our European friends to go forward in forming the more perfect union which will someday make this partnership possible.

A great new edifice is not built overnight. It was eleven years from the Declaration of Independence to the writing of the Constitution. The construction of workable federal institutions required still another generation. The greatest works of our Nation’s founders lay not in documents and declarations, but in creative, determined action. The building of the new house of Europe has followed the same practical, purposeful course. Building the Atlantic partnership now will not be easily or cheaply finished. But I will say here and now, on this Day of Independence, that the United States will be ready for a Declaration of Interdependence, that we will be prepared to discuss with a united Europe the ways and means of forming a concrete Atlantic partnership, a mutually beneficial partnership between the new union now emerging in Europe and the old American Union founded here 175 years ago.

Acting on our own, by ourselves, we cannot establish justice throughout the world; we cannot insure its domestic tranquility, or provide for its common defense, or promote its general welfare, or secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. But joined with other free nations, we can do all this and more. We can assist the developing nations to throw off the yoke of poverty. We can balance our worldwide trade and payments at the highest possible level of growth. We can mount a deterrent powerful enough to deter any aggression. And ultimately we can help to achieve a world of law and free choice, banishing the world of war and coercion. For the Atlantic partnership of which I speak would not look inward only, preoccupied with its own welfare and advancement. It must look outward to cooperate with all nations in meeting their common concern. It would serve as a nucleus for the eventual union of all free men—those who are now free and those who are vowing that some day they will be free.”

As president Kennedy states, we are connected in a network of interdependence not only with each other, but also within a global framework in which the principles of mutual security, democratic rights, an open but regulated market, and justice need to be protected and pursued. The United States must continue to work with the network of it transatlantic partners, be they in Brussels, Berlin, or elsewhere in the European Union, to achieve these goals. This will be a challenging task as it has been in the past, and it will help to address the question about how and why both sides of the Atlantic are and remain relevant to each other.

That would be a good message for President Obama to give both in his inauguration speech now and sometime in the near future in Berlin.

  • K Bledowski

    There is little to disagree with in Jackson Jane’s eloquent piece. Germany and the U.S. certainly strain to find solid common ground on which to solidify their relationship. And it doesn’t help that both societies look inward amid a tenuous economic environment.

    Yet there is another angle to Germany’s predicament. The country finds itself unexpectedly estranged from its usual friends and allies, worldwide. Europe-wide, goodwill toward Germans is on the wane for all kinds of reasons. The greater Middle East casts a wary eye on Germany’s emotionless divorce from the region’s predicaments, from Libya, through Afghanistan, and on to Northern Africa. Relations with Russia are frostier. Even emerging heavyweights of China and India openly challenge Germany’s push for global environmental standards. The normally self-conscious Germans look around and feel strangely alone.

    On the other hand, Germany, almost like no other on the continent, takes to heart Europe’s integration amid its current predicament. I find the domestic debates on the issue worthwhile, necessary, and much appreciated. Notwithstanding its occasional rough edge, such social intercourse is woefully missing elsewhere in Europe, notably France and Italy. Only Britain matches Berlin in grassroots give-and-take that politicians listen to and take seriously. Without voters trusting politicians and politicians taking voters’ preferences on Europe’s integration seriously, the continent’s further unification effort is hard to imagine.

    Therein lies a chance, for Germany, Europe, and the United States. Just as the U.S. midwifed the continent’s post-war recovery, Germany stands a chance to broker the healing of crisis-torn Europe. It will take courage, soft-hand diplomacy, and a unity of purpose. It will certainly take time. But I think it’s possible and it will gain the country a ton of goodwill.