The response to Russia and transatlantic trade will be the focus of Angela Merkel’s second visit to Washington as Chancellor. But, as important as these issues are to “the West”—i.e., the Americas and the European Union—they are unlikely to inspire a new generation of thinkers on transatlantic relations. There is no new Cold War with Russia and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will not necessarily become the transformational free trade agreement it is claimed to be. Both represent the issues of yesterday rather than the challenges of tomorrow.
President Obama and Chancellor Merkel’s principal aim on Friday will be to demonstrate Western resolve regarding Russia and Ukraine. The current policy is based on the assumption that Ukraine can remain stable long enough—with the help of financial assistance—for Ukrainian elections to occur in May and for sanctions to begin to have an effect on Moscow’s calculations. Putin, however, is unlikely to allow himself to be put in this box and will do what he can to disrupt this strategy by fueling the worsening security situation in eastern Ukraine.
Europe’s tattered strategy of modernization and America’s reset both assumed that Russia would see the associated policies as a win-win; the situation is now rapidly becoming lose-lose. Merkel will want to reassure the German electorate that Western economic assistance to Ukraine will not simply be placed on the backs of Europe’s taxpayers. But that may require Obama to do more to convince Americans that Ukraine is worth a longer-term investment.
So far, Putin has been successful in extracting a price from the West for encroaching upon Russia’s perceived interests. Yet, his actions have been less the carefully devised machinations of a strongman than the reactions of a wounded regime facing a troubled economic and political future. The loss of Western investment, a dwindling population, and a shifting energy market place Russia on an almost certain path of decline. To keep Russia from acting as a spoiler in other areas important to the West, Merkel and Obama need to eventually devise an “out” for Putin from a predicament of his own making.
Renewing Transatlantic Relations
It will be particularly disappointing if Obama and Merkel show no progress on the related issues of cybersecurity and data privacy. In the wake of the revelations that Angela Merkel’s own cell phone was monitored by the NSA, it would be politically damaging for her to come back to Berlin with no agreement, apology, or even promise of a more honest and open discussion with Washington. Of course, sometimes it is easier to sweep difficult issues under the rug. But by ignoring the common challenges posed by the digital age, the United States and Germany will miss an opportunity to set the agenda, particularly on an issue of direct relevance to the lives of younger generations.
The crisis over Ukraine has also underscored the importance of a more coordinated approach toward the changing geopolitics of energy. The challenges are immense: European countries continue to depend on Russian gas, Germany’s transition to renewables has been halting at best, and climate scientists are giving increasingly shrill warnings about the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. Meanwhile, U.S. progress toward energy self-sufficiency will create new opportunities and has the potential to dramatically alter its relationships across the globe.
Yet, the transatlantic community will continue to keep drifting along until political leaders decide where to focus their efforts. Young Americans and Europeans will eventually have to deal with the consequences of inaction and failed policies. In his visit to Washington in February, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated plainly that the “transatlantic partnership is in no way as self-evident” as it used to be. One way to ensure that it remains relevant is to sustain the dialogue on the challenges of both today and tomorrow.