The recent visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the United States was observed with great interest by major powers in Europe and the Middle East. German relations with the US have suffered since the Germans abstained from a UN Security Council vote on entering Libya, as well as an elbow-bend turn on their stance toward nuclear energy. This analysis seeks to understand the shifting dynamics of European relations as they pertain to Germany, the direction of NATO-led operations and the future of US-German relations.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Washington on the June 6, 2011 for a three-day visit with her US counterpart. The visit comes at a time when relations between the trans-Atlantic allies are at a low point.
Annette Heuser, from the American arm of the German Bertelsmann Foundation said in an interview with the Atlantic Council’s Salwar Kashmiri that there is little understanding coming from Washington as to the reasons and driving force behind Germany’s foreign policy stance. This is especially true when it comes to the contentious issue of Germany’s abstention from voting on the Libyan offensive, and their apparent about-face in policy on nuclear energy: “…after Germany abstained its vote on Libya there is no understanding anymore… [regarding] what Germany’s course in foreign politics is and how strong Germany’s commitment is for the Transatlantic Alliance right now.” She further asserts that German international politics is driven primarily by pressure over the upcoming elections in 2012. While there is generally acknowledged a certain level of internal political pressure on foreign policy decisions, the extent at present to which Germany is being driven by internal political pressure is leading toward a dangerous path, as their reliability to make sound, rational decision in the international arena is being called into question.
The official visit by Chancellor Merkel was carried off with a remarkable level of amiability between the two leaders, with a State Dinner, an official welcome on the lawn of the Whitehouse and the awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honor. Such displays of unity and friendship have alarmed some in the United Kingdom, who covet their “special relationship” as the US’s closest ally; it did not go unnoticed that UK Prime Minister David Cameron received no such distinguished honors in his 2010 US visit. US President Barack Obama’s comments alluding to Germany as the future “leader” of Europe have also pricked ears in other parts of Europe, with France and perhaps even Russia feeling that this role is as yet, up for grabs. While chummy outward appearances may be cause for some concern in Europe, the friendly overtures belie a growing tension in Washington over the direction of Germany’s international politics.
The US would like to see Germany take a firmer, more central role in the growing debt crisis in Europe, assisting with stricken EU countries like Greece in the hope that it will stave off, if not avoid a return to economic recession in the near future. “We think it would be disastrous for us to see an uncontrolled spiral and default in Europe because that could trigger a whole range of other events,” Obama said in relation to the issue of Greece at a joint press conference with Chancellor Merkel on June 7. Merkel has long avoided taking deeper monetary action to bail out flailing EU countries, and is still unlikely to go as far as the Obama administration would like.
The reluctance to sure up other countries in the EU is also being interpreted elsewhere in Europe as a shift in stance by Germany, taking on a nation-centric, rather than Euro-centric outlook. If this is the case, which many analysts are starting to wonder, then the strong, reliable ally and neighbor many depended on Germany to be, may be replaced by “one of sharp elbows, shallow loyalties and short-sighted reckoning,” as put by Jorge Benitez of the Atlantic Council.
This trend toward non-alliance is perceived with worry by Germany’s allies, especially as the cost – both politically and economically – of these alliances are increasing. This is especially pertinent given the abstention from the vote on the NATO mission into Libya. Germany shocked everyone, even members of Merkel’s own party by taking this stance; better a vote with a provision for non-military involvement in the mission, than no vote at all they said. While Germany was joined by the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in its abstention, the seeming about-face in policy is what shocked. This consequentially brought into question the future of Germany’s involvement in other NATO-led operations, especially in Afghanistan.
Since the fallout from the abstention vote has hit home, Merkel has endeavored to somewhat patch up the damage, with first the visit to the US, as well as affirming Germany’s readiness to assist in economic and infrastructure recovery in Libya, and to further assist NATO in Afghanistan. This may not be enough however, especially given that there is increasing frustration in Washington over the disunity and slow action in Europe over the “Arab Spring” with little being done to ensure a transition to democratic rule in the aftermath of the Middle East uprisings. This is a central point for the US as well as Israel, who are looking to someone, Germany being the favored contender, to stand as a leader in Europe and act strongly regarding the Arab uprisings.
Israel has much riding on the outcomes of the revolutionary rumblings in the neighborhood, and will look to friends abroad to try and secure its position, which is precarious to say the least given that the nature and outlook of its neighbors continues to be in a state of flux and wildly unpredictable at that.
Germany damaged its credibility in the US with the surprise abstention from the Libya Security Council vote. In order to repair the damage, it will need to stand strong in the upcoming decisions of the Transatlantic Alliance in regards to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the future of the conflicts in the region. A card the Germans are yet to play, but which may go a long way to assuring their central position in Europe and the surrounding region is Syria. Germany has a long-standing, even informal relationship with Syria and has many channels of communication not available to others in Europe or the US.
The next few weeks will tell whether Merkel will continue to choose the path that has so unsettled her allies by taking a non-aligned stance, or whether efforts will be made to reassure the region, as well as concerned parties abroad that Germany remains a strong and responsible power in Europe.