Why is Washington serenading German Chancellor Angela Merkel?


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C. on June 7, 2011.


Saul Loeb

BERLIN, Germany — After the smoke cleared from the 19-cannon salute, U.S. President Barack Obama awarded German Chancellor Angela Merkel the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday. But his effusive oratory sounded discordant to many ears attuned to transatlantic foreign policy.

America’s highest civilian honor is given for “especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States.”

Merkel, in recent months, sided with Russia and China in abstaining on the United Nations vote to authorize military action against Libya. Her economic and fiscal policies run contrary to U.S. interests. She's slashing military spending. And following Japan’s Fukushima disaster she unilaterally decided to abandon nuclear power.

Analysts on both sides of the Atlantic have an explanation: The medal — and the gushing praise of the chancellor — was less an award for past achievements than a signal of what Washington expects of the German leader in the future.

“Helmut Kohl was the last German leader to receive the medal,” said Henning Riecke, head of the transatlantic program at the German Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s the big league. But what she’s getting the medal for is not what she has done … but what America wants Germany to do.”

What the United States wants, analysts say, is for Germany to recognize that, as the de facto leader of Europe and an economic powerhouse, it is a serious global player and it ought to start acting like one. That, above all, was the subtext to Tuesday night’s glittering pageantry.

Germany has 82 million people — the largest population in Europe by far — and a booming economy that is drowning out its neighbors'. Its economic ties with China are deepening. Yet it remains hesitant as a global player and is becoming increasingly driven by self-interest on the European level just as the United States is looking for a strong partner in Europe, experts say.

“Germany is now the most powerful country in Europe,” said Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Washington-based Transatlantic Academy, who was visiting Berlin this week. “Yet it still wants to act like Switzerland.”

But Washington has little option other than encouraging Germany leadership, experts say. American needs a strong partner to lead Europe through its debt crisis, and on security. That includes more military help in global hotspots and more financial help for the Arab Spring. In theory, the United States can seek European leadership from the European Union, but in practice the bloc’s Lisbon Treaty failed to deliver the common European foreign policy America had hoped for — the “phone number for Europe” that Henry Kissinger pined for.

“We’d love to see [EU Foreign Minister] Lady Ashton be a real leader of foreign policy but that’s not going to happen,” Szabo said. “Who do you have left? The Brits are the most reliable ally and most important militarily … but they are still kind of marginal and they don’t have as much influence in Europe. The French? I don’t think so. Who does that leave?”

Naturally, it leaves Germany. The problem is that Germany is reluctant to lead. This is partly the nature of the nation, commentators say. Nearly seven decades after the fall of the Nazis, Germans remain wary of appearing to dominate Europe and especially of any kind of militarism, even in the case of Libya, where Germany refused to commit forces.

“But it’s partly Merkel’s fault,” Szabo said. “She could have led on Libya — foreign policy is about leadership. But she’s been pretty weak the past year or two, pandering to parochial concerns.”

The United States has already spent considerable time and effort trying to persuade Germany to get more involved militarily — now it is lavishing attention on a chancellor whose domestic support has flagged. Obama demonstrated patience — though with a slight edge — at the leaders' joint press conference Tuesday he talked briefly about Merkel’s past achievements before expanding at conspicuous length on how important Merkel’s future leadership was going to be for the euro zone crisis and the Arab Spring.

“She’s not finished yet. She’s got a lot more work to do,” he said. “I know sometimes she wouldn’t mind a couple of days off, but she’ll have to wait for that.”

His comments reflect not just Germany's strength, but also America’s weakening, as it cedes the title of sole superpower to the rise of China and India.

“We’re broke and compared with us, the Germans look awfully good,” Szabo said. “So [the U.S. policy] reflects as much upon the changing U.S. role as it does on Germany."

The West is "being challenged by non-democratic pow   ers," he continued. "If we don’t stick together on things like IMF reform, it’s going to be a very different world order and that’s not in any of our interests.”