The following essay on President Obama’s visit to Berlin by AICGS President Jack Janes was originally published in German by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on June 17, 2013, which can be viewed here: Fremde Freunde, By Jack Janes, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 17 June 2013
Ever since President Obama decided to visit Berlin this month after much German lobbying to do so, one of the questions that has remained un-answered is: what is his message going to be?
The President is expected to address the German Bundestag during his visit and many are assuming he will highlight the new initiative called the TTIP–the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership–as a new and improved basis for EU-U.S. relations. Since he mentioned TTIP in his last State of the Union address, the message in Berlin will likely pick up that same line.
The appeal of the emphasis on strengthening transatlantic economic ties is self explanatory. In light of the fragile situation in Europe and the uncertainty of the future on both sides of the Atlantic, policies designed to enhance growth, jobs and stability are welcome. Yet beyond this call for more breath and depth to the most intensive trading block in the world, what else might be expected in the President’s message for Germans or for Europeans in general?
The fact that the President’s visit foreshadows the 50th anniversary of a speech President Kennedy made in Berlin in June of 1963 cannot have escaped the speech writers in the West Wing. Yet Kennedy’s message of reassurance to a frightened West Berlin on the front line of the Cold War does not transfer to a Germany that looks very different fifty years later–at itself, at its environment and indeed at its relationship with the United States.
Germany in 2013 is the same country which welcomed senator Obama so enthusiastically five years ago in Berlin. But that enthusiasm at the time had much to with the iconic image of the man and the expectations which went with them. Today, five years later, President Obama has a more visible record on which he can be measured against those expectations. As in the U.S., not everyone is as enthusiastic today. The president has faced tough choices at home and abroad and left others waiting for decisions. That did not prevent his reelection to a second term. But the possibilities and limits of presidential power have again been illustrated by the era of Obama.
Most Germans still like the President for what they think he represents in their image of America. Yet they remained baffled by his apparent inability to implement his agenda and by the gridlock in Congress. However, even beyond that, the Germany of 2013 looks at a United States which remains the powerful global power, but no longer Germany’s primary protector.
The past two decades since unification have seen Germany gradually expand its range of political choices in setting its domestic and foreign policy direction. Both within Europe and on the global stage, Germany has increased its leverage as an economic powerhouse while also reassessing its foreign policy priorities, which has led to occasional clashes with Washington. Be it in the case of Iraq, Libya, or dealing with the economic recession of the past years, Germany chose a path different from the U.S. Yet Germany also remained with the U.S. in Afghanistan, sides with it in dealing with Iranian nuclear ambitions, and is key leader of a Europe which the U.S. needs as a partner in dealing with global challenges. Germany is both a partner of cooperation but also one in competition with the U.S. at many levels. Germany is not the key object of American foreign policy as it was when the Berlin Wall still existed. It is now a subject of an American foreign policy which increasingly needs to share burdens in a world in which power and influence is more diffuse.
While Germany and the U.S. share an extensive equation of interests while also seeing some solutions to problems through different lenses, the parameters of interdependence have shifted between the two countries. How Germany and the U.S. need each other today differs from that of the past. And both sides continue to make adjustments to that change.
All the more reason for President Obama to benchmark his messages to Germans by referencing the challenges which are beyond national borders. There is a wide range of areas in which Germany and the U.S. can share experiences with similar questions and problems, be they dealing with energy, immigration, or aging societies. There is also the set of questions which involve the global future, be it the fires of unrest in the Middle East or Africa, the threat of environmental decay, or the shift of economic and demographic forces throughout the world.
Germany has been struggling with its role in this mix of challenges, asking where and how it can meet them. The European dimension of that struggle is reflected in the current crises of the Euro and the uncertainty of the next steps of the European project. On the U.S. side, there is a similar struggle over the balance between domestic and global responsibilities.
It is precisely in that interface of shifts in thinking about both how and what Germans and Americans can and should expect from one another that a presidential message might fit. Obama need not stand in Berlin and rehearse the lines of his predecessors there. He could however stand on their shoulders and say that what was once a transatlantic set of challenges have morphed into global responsibilities which both Berlin and Washington need to share and act on. He can recognize that the U.S. needs to engage with its partners in enlarging the lenses through which problems are approached, to open the doors to more stakeholders in a global market place but also to global governance opportunities. He can point to the European experiment–still hesitantly but gradually unfolding–of pooling sovereignty among nations as one formula for shaping responses to challenges.
At a time when the dangers of looking inward lurk on both sides of the Atlantic, the President can issue a warning to his own citizens as well as those of Europe. Now is not the time to retreat in the face of centrifugal forces. It is a time to answer the question: in the name of what do we set our sights in applying leadership, resources and indeed inspiration to tackle hard choices.
In a largely successful narrative, the story of German-American relations over the second half of the twentieth century had answers to that question. The result was the moment of German unification in which Americans shared in an historical moment of triumph together. Over two decades later, there are many more challenges well beyond Berlin or Washington which require the same diligence and shared engagement over an equally long, if even undetermined, period. There were no quick solutions to a divided Europe a half century ago. There are none now in an ever more globalized set of challenges.
There is perhaps a special set of lessons to be learned while in Berlin. The specter of the past is never far from view, yet the renewal of the present is also visible from multiple directions. Constant remembrance and continuing renewal is perhaps a slogan defining Berlin and Germany today. Yet that also can stand for Europe and indeed for transatlantic relations seeking to renew a commitment.
President Obama might say something about that while in Berlin.
Further analysis on President Obama’s Berlin visit: