In today’s Spiegel, Gregor Peter Schmitz asks, “Does the US Still Care about Germany?”  His starting point is Chancellor Angela Merkel’s wistful praise of a certain Atlantic Council chairman – and the fact that so few American politicians were there to hear her speech.

For a brief moment, the American-German relationship looked just as Germans like to imagine it. Chancellor Angela Merkel was on the stage on Thursday evening at the Library of Congress in the heart of the United States capital, where she had just received the Warburg Prize handed out by the Atlantik Brücke, an important trans-Atlantic organization. The chancellor was clearly moved, her voice full of emotion. And she spoke of a senior US politician.

He is, she said, “the personification of the partnership” between Germany and America. He took time out to meet her, she told the audience, before anyone could imagine that she might one day become chancellor, back when she was just the head of the conservative Christian Democrats. “Who takes the time these days? Who is so inquisitive?” she asked, her voice full of praise.

It was a touching scene, but the man she was speaking of is not, as one might have thought, a high-ranking member of President Barack Obama’s administration. Rather, it was the Republican Chuck Hagel.

Hagel’s service to trans-Atlantic relations has been consistent and valuable. And even still, whenever there is an important event having to do with Germany or Europe, it is a solid bet that Hagel will be there — as he was on Thursday night, when he delivered the introduction for Merkel. But when it comes to American politics, Hagel these days is far from the centers of power. He left the Senate, where he represented Nebraska for over a decade, last year. Now, the 62-year-old chairs the board of directors at a foreign policy think tank.  He still does his part for trans-Atlantic relations, but few seem interested in following in his footsteps. On the stage on Thursday night, active politicians were few and far between.

Indeed, there was just a single member of the House of Representatives (out of a possible 435) who bothered to show up to see the German chancellor. Interest for countries like Germany is no longer seen as a way to advance one’s career in the US Congress. Those who take an interest in foreign policy have begun looking to Asia first. The only other politician of note at Merkel’s reception was Alan Greenspan. But the 83-year-old is also now in retirement.

The Thursday night event perfectly encapsulated the current state of trans-Atlantic relations. While Germany looks to the US, America looks elsewhere. In Washington, the concept of a G-2 is gaining credence, a world order in which the US and China take the lead. Europe — and Germany — is on the margins.

Merkel, it became clear during her speech, seems to have resigned herself to the shift. She hardly mentioned Germany — instead presenting herself as the consummate European. “The Europeans have grown closer together,” she said. Often, she went on, Europeans are considered to be somewhat complicated, but that is a misconception. “We have understood that we need to speak with a single voice. We are 500 million people and that is a weight that cannot be ignored.” As if sensing that she’d gone a bit too far, she added: “That doesn’t mean that Americans should only travel to Brussels now instead of to Germany.”

Having spent many years of my life in Germany, both during my father’s military career and my own briefer one, it is odd, indeed to contemplate the irrelevance of Germany to U.S. geopolitics.  But there’s something to Schmitz’ thesis.

First, as he notes, Asia has elbowed its way into a role as a truly major player on the world political and economic stage.   And the consolidation of increasing political and economic power in Brussels — and the concomitant surrendering of said power by Berlin and London and Paris — has naturally made it less necessary to deal with Germany on a bilateral basis.

German Policies Frustrate Washington

Beyond that, though, Germany has made political decisions that have made them less important than the United Kingdom.  Most notably, it has vastly underfunded its military compared to its enormous economic power and thereby made itself a much less significant NATO ally.   In Afghanistan, their contribution to the mission has been minuscule by great power standards and come with “caveats” that have quite literally become a joke within the Alliance.  To be sure, Germany has suffered losses in the war.  The loss of three Bundeswehr soldiers near Kunduz Tuesday brings their death to 35.  But as reports by Spiegel and UPI yesterday note, German politicians are still debating over whether to even acknowledge that the nearly 4000 German soldiers fighting in Afghanistan are even in a “war.”

American Policies Frustrate Berlin

It should be noted that irritation over differences in policy go both ways.

The Washington Post‘s Craig Whitlock had a piece Monday titled “Tensions Precede Merkel Visit.”  It opened:

President Obama may be the most popular politician in Germany. But that hasn’t won him any favors from the German government.

Since he moved into the White House, Obama has encountered a string of rebukes and lectures from Chancellor Angela Merkel and German lawmakers, who have irritated Washington by refusing to provide more help in fighting the Afghan war or closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, among other disputes. The diplomatic tensions stand in contrast to the rapturous greeting candidate Obama received in Berlin last July, when an estimated 200,000 people jammed the streets.

The sorest point has been over how to respond to the economic crisis, with Merkel and some of her ministers warning darkly that U.S. fiscal and monetary policies have been reckless and will trigger a global wave of inflation. In turn, Obama’s advisers have complained that Germany — the world’s leading exporter and Europe’s largest economy — has done the least of any industrialized nation to fight the recession.

Howard LaFranchi continues this theme in a piece in today’s Christian Science Monitor titled “Merkel and Obama don’t always see eye to eye.”

Chancellor Merkel – like Obama, a cool academic by training – continues to make digs at the US over the international economic crisis, and with Germany refusing either to send a substantial number of new troops to Afghanistan or to take any of Guantánamo’s detainees, the stage seems set for polite disagreement.

In a statement circulated by the German Embassy in Washington, Merkel said she “wants to discuss with President Obama how to return to sustainable economic activity.” To some economists, that was a veiled commentary on some of Obama’s economic measures, including the stimulus package and banking bailouts. Merkel has criticized them as inflationary and unsustainable.


“There is accord, but at the same time there’s beginning to be a certain disquiet,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Angela Merkel and other European leaders would like to see much greater leadership form the US and much more in the way of carbon reduction commitments.”

Too much focus on whether there was Obama-Merkel “chemistry” masks a more consequential drift between the two countries over the key issues before them, says Ms. Conley.  “All of this speculation on the personal dynamics has only served to overshadow the growing policy disagreements,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Besides economic measures, she cites Afghanistan, the handing of Guantánamo detainees, and even climate change.

The differences suggest that the two leaders are dealing with different pressures and different interests, says [Karen] Donfried [executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund]. Merkel faces elections in late September; Obama must face skepticism on climate measures from industrial states.

This has been a recurring theme here at New Atlanticist.  Some figures in the transatlantic community, notably Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, are larger-than-life personalities.  But, at the end of the day, they represent the largely unchanging interests of powerful nation-states.  Focusing overmuch on individual leaders obscures the continuity in international politics.

The Unsqueaky Wheel Gets Less Grease

All of the above considered, however, some perspective is in order.  Part of the reason Washington pays less attention to Berlin than in the not-so-distant past is that members of the transatlantic community simply take one another for granted. 

There are many pressing problems to juggle and China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and others suck up an enormous amount of oxygen because they are so perplexing to deal with.   The differences between the United States and any country in Western Europe, by contrast, as relatively small and viewed through a shared historical prism. 

Ultimately, while Obama and Merkel may disagree on many policies, all they need to do to discuss their differences is to pick up the phone.  That makes this controversy, much like the recurring questions about the US-UK “special relationship,” silly in the grand scheme of things.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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