If Obama’s visit to the United Kingdom and Germany confirmed anything, it was the extent to which America’s political elites worry about the strength and unity of Europe. Lack of consensus and a waning sense of shared purpose, undercurrents of political rivalry and the growing impact of identity politics, are all things that are weakening the EU and are cause for some sleepless nights on the other side of the Atlantic.
Washington is built on the primacy of national sovereignty and power, and the determination to be and to remain the strongest nation on earth. Its decision-makers have little to no appreciation for EU-style supra-nationalism. Instead, they want Europe to simply come together in order to settle America’s European question. Inherent to this approach is the arrogance of the US, which believes itself to be omnipotent, and does not see the need to reflect on the preconditions and consequences of its preferred outcome. No rhetoric of partnership could ever resolve the asymmetry between Europe and the United States. In her ten plus years in office German Chancellor Angela Merkel has often experienced this cultural and political gap first hand. While her relationship to the US President Barack Obama has matured over his two terms, an uneasy sense of distance and aura of mutual disappointment lingers between them.
According to Merkel’s understanding of the political process, personality matters greatly, but not as much as the European public had projected into the Obama presidency. She has always kept her distance from charismatic leadership, in part because she is not a charismatic figure or naturally gifted speaker herself. Obama’s ability to enthuse large audiences and to attract the feelings and desires of people remains suspicious to her. Her approach to politics is one motivated by the patient, tireless search for common ground, the management of (inclusive) processes, and above all, a focus on facts.
Merkel has welcomed the attention the US president has given her as the German Chancellor, and she has instrumentalised Obama’s likeability for her own purposes with great skill, as demonstrated by the orchestration of the G8/G7 summits of Heiligendamm 2007 and Elmau in 2015. However, she has also shied away from accepting some of the further reaching advances Obama has made. Angela Merkel did not respond to Washington’s notion that Germany could be Europe’s benevolent hegemon, and shell out the resources needed to support such a role. She did not want to commit Germany for the sake of leadership; rather she preferred to lead through rules and process. Regarding the latter point, messages from the US have been disappointing to her, signalling a degree of unwillingness to understand and respect the rules and constraints of policy-making within the European Union.
When the sovereign debt crisis challenged her determination to hold the EU together, voices from the US policy debate, including from the government, criticised Merkel’s approach as “austerity”. These voices did not help her, as they did not take into account the political and legal context of European Monetary Union. US counterparts were also very willing to suggest proposals on how Germany should bail out Greece; proposals which reflected a lack of understanding of and support for what she saw as her task to uphold the rules upon which integration was built. Seen from Merkel’s perspective, her US partners did not understand or share her motives and goals throughout the entire debt crisis. In her early years in office, she suffered similar misreadings of European integration when the US government was advising the EU to get over its concerns and integrate Turkey into the EU rather quickly.
In early 2015, as the fighting in eastern Ukraine was escalating, Angela Merkel felt pressure from the US to expose herself widely. She had to take the risk of failure in an attempt to bring Ukrainians and Russians to the table in order to protect her preferences and what she saw as the integrity of the European position. While at the same time, in Washington, members of Congress and pundits were debating whether to arm Ukraine. Merkel experienced a lack of full support of the US-President in her attempt to bring about a negotiated solution. Obama did not share her conviction that the Ukrainians would be unable to win the conflict militarily, but was nonetheless happy that she took a difficult decision off the table. Had Hollande and Merkel failed in Minsk, the West’s Ukraine policy would have been defined in Washington (and London), and likely the consensus within the EU over the sanctions against Russia would have been lost.
When Barack Obama awarded Angela Merkel with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, Merkel was deeply moved. However, the award was meant to win Merkel over to the role of helping to ease the US burden of leadership. It’s very likely that Merkel, a woman from the former Communist East Germany who had no liking for the regime she lived under but was no dissident either, would never have anticipated in the 1980s that she would ever get a chance to travel to the United States, the strongest symbol of freedom for many people. Two years after being awarded the medal, the Wikileaks affair must have come as a shock, confirming the caution she had felt earlier in her youth. After all, communist East Germany practised extensive surveillance and tapping, and Merkel grew up in a system that nourished mistrust and prevented people from “living in truth” as Vaclav Havel has said. And now, America was spying on its friends, US intelligence was tapping the Chancellor’s phone.
Merkel prefers the rule of law to the laws of power. She is reluctant to stretch the legal boundaries and mindful of the lessons drawn from such practice by other political leaders, in Moscow, Beijing or elsewhere. In her view, Guantanamo should never have been opened, and she expected Obama to close it down during his leadership, as he had pledged. From a rules based perspective like hers, “targeted killing” by US drone strikes is a highly questionable practice, as it puts realpolitik before legality. Though she will not speak about it, Angela Merkel would likely have wished for more sensible US engagement in the Middle East, a better thought through strategy of intervention, and a greater willingness to take the next steps. Obama, however, has ended US military control over Iraq, but he has also phased out US ownership of the political future of the region, leaving behind political disintegration.
None of these issues overshadowed the visit of Barack Obama to Hannover this April because Angela Merkel is as much a professional political leader as Barack Obama, no matter how different their personalities may be. She knows how important it is for Germany to have a good working relationship with the US for economic, political and security reasons, whatever her personal feeling may be. And she knows that the US needs partners like Germany in spite of Washington’s arrogance of power. When the media were asking the US president about his thoughts on the two-term limit for leaders in the US, Obama spoke about the advantage having some fresh legs to come in. Merkel looked at him baffled and amused at the same time. But, of course, she couldn’t possibly comment.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.