Why Obama Couldn’t Rescue U.S.-German Relations
Tensions between the two countries aren’t about who holds the presidency. They’re about what Germans see as deep divisions on fundamental values.
We know at least one thing about how U.S. President Barack Obama’s arrival in Germany will unfold this coming Sunday: He will not be greeted by 200,000 enthusiastic and emotional citizens screaming his name on the street, as he was when he visited Berlin as a candidate in July 2008.
When Obama took office in 2009, expectations in Germany were sky high. Obama, Germans hoped, would make America a better partner. He would bring new energy to climate negotiations and nonproliferation efforts, solve the evolving financial crisis in a coordinated way, strengthen international organizations and multilateral cooperation, and approach the fight against terrorism in a less aggressive and unilateral manner, together with his European partners. “Historic Shift: Obama Awakens the New America,” a Der Spiegel story from Nov. 5, 2008, proclaimed jubilantly.
But it wasn’t just about improving cooperation between the two countries. Germans were also buoyed by Obama’s plans to change domestic, health care, and economic policies in the United States and his commitment to human rights, evidenced by his announcement of plans to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. At some level, there was hope that the election of Obama would, in fact, reshape the United States into a country with values more in line with German ones. This has not happened, to the disappointment of many in Germany.
Obama’s first visit, as a candidate for the U.S. presidency, came at a time when ties between the two countries were particularly strained. The war in Iraq was a turning point: The United States intervened militarily there on grounds that the German government wouldn’t go along with and which later proved false. Then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who had spoken of “unconditional solidarity” with the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, became the first German chancellor to openly take issue not only with U.S. foreign-policy choices but also with the American way of life.
That way of life was once much admired in Germany, particularly during Cold War, for its avowed dedication to freedom, anti-authoritarianism, and democratic values. But in the intervening years, many Germans had come to see American culture as ruthlessly capitalist and consumerist and U.S. foreign policy as bullying and unilateral. Schröder contrasted this idea of America with that of a “German way,” which encompassed both a very different socioeconomic model, which prioritized competitiveness but also equality and environmental sustainability, and a different vision for international coalitions, which could serve as alternatives to the transatlantic alliance. These were tensions not just about policy, but about fundamental values. Criticism of America in Germany at the time ran broad and deep, and a general sense emerged that a strong and stable transatlantic relationship could no longer be taken for granted. This has not changed since.
While Obama initially stirred hopes for far-reaching change in U.S. politics, many Germans today feel let down. Domestic struggles prevented Obama from fulfilling his promises on issues like Guantánamo; then Germans learned that the National Security Agency had carried out massive surveillance in Germany and other EU member states, which included tapping the cell phone of Chancellor Angela Merkel. The federal parliament established a committee to investigate the spying revelations, and the work is still ongoing.
The fallout from these revelations was painful. It drew an unexpectedly emotional reaction from the German public, who started to question if the United States was still their “friend.” In an Allensbach Institute survey from 2014, 54 percent of interviewees agreed with the statement that they were very disappointed in Americans after the revelation that the NSA had tapped Merkel’s mobile phone. Forty-eight percent approved of the statement that “Germany and the U.S. are close friends, and among friends you don’t wiretap each other. That’s a big breach of trust.” Trust levels plummeted quite strikingly in 2014: Only 35 percent of Germans polled said they still trusted the United States, while the percentage of Germans who said they “approved of the way the president of the United States, Barack Obama, is handling international policies” dropped by 20 percent. According to a more recent Pew Research Center survey from June 2015, only 50 percent of Germans have a positive image of the United States, and only 43 percent believe that the U.S. government is sufficiently respectful of civil rights. (Though trust levels are slowly recovering: In April 2016, 58 percent of Germans said the United States is a trustworthy partner.)
While Schröder may have been the first chancellor to give voice to the idea that Germany and the United States no longer have a set of shared values, these concerns predate him — and have only grown deeper in the digital age, due to diverging public narratives on issues like privacy and data security. Germans, and Europeans more generally, see big U.S. Internet and social networking companies like Google and Facebook coming onto the continent and imposing their standards on European markets and fear the loss of control. Values and political norms, moreover, diverge on issues like state intervention in the economy, the use of force, embeddedness in international organizations, religiosity, and acceptance of homosexuality. The divide may well grow bigger with time: There seems to be a generation gap when it comes to how America is perceived in Germany. Younger Germans without direct post-World War II experience are most critical of the United States. According to a WIN/Gallup International survey from 2013, 25 percent of young Germans between the ages of 25 and 34 (compared to 17 percent of Germans in total) believe the United States is the biggest threat to world peace.
Germans’ sense of unease with the United States and globalization more broadly is particularly visible in the surprisingly politicized debate about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Last October, an estimated 250,000 people protested in Berlin against TTIP, speaking out against markets prevailing over democracy and European standards being lowered due to pressure from U.S. businesses. The protest was supported by a broad alliance of civil society actors like labor unions, consumer advocates, and environmental organizations, as well as the Greens and Left Party.
Germans often seem to forget that negotiations on TTIP were not imposed on their country but actually initiated with Merkel’s support when she visited Washington in 2012. A trade and investment agreement was seen as very much in the interest of Germany and Europe, not only because it would lower tariffs but also because it would help the transatlantic partners become global standard-setters on consumer regulation. The TTIP debate highlights the contradictions at the heart of Germany’s perspective on its relationship with America: Germans often feel a sense that the United States is trying to trick them into unfavorable deals and agreements or otherwise betray them. In 2015, the United States became Germany’s most important export destination, overtaking France. Yet still, many Germans don’t believe U.S.-made cars are safe, U.S. chicken is healthy, or that U.S. regulators are well-intentioned.
On the leadership level, however, the U.S.-German relationship is strong: Merkel and Obama are said to have strong personal ties and trust between them. And many German decision-makers, from the federal ministries to the German Bundestag, have very good working relationships with their American counterparts. And yet elected politicians in Germany speak less easily than they used to about their positive relationship with the United States in public — a reflection of the growing pressure that anti-American public sentiment has brought to bear over the past few years.
Reversing this will be a long-term process. But in the meantime, Obama’s visit can help. His speech, and the mini-summit that will bring him together with Merkel and three other European policymakers, will serve to remind Europeans of the strategic importance of their relationship with the United States at a time when the EU looks weak and unsteady — with Germany, America’s key relationship in Europe, at its shaky center. But beyond this, both sides will have to come to grips with a relationship that is more sober, and thus more precarious, than it once was. The fact that there is neither a Cold War, whose threat helped keep the transatlantic partners together, nor strong positive momentum in the democratic transition of Europe’s east — nor, for that matter, in the strengthening of the liberal world order — means that leaders in both Germany and the United States, if they hope to maintain a close relationship, will have to continuously insist that their countries have shared interests and, even now, a robust set of shared values. It’s not something to be taken for granted any longer.
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