A return of “ignore Germany” under Obama?

May 28, 2009

It’s not quite as bad as it was back in 2003 when Gerhard Schroeder publicly chastised George W. Bush for invading Iraq and Condi Rice introduced a new policy in the White House called “ignore Germany” (France was to be punished and Russia forgiven for their opposition to the war).

But relations between Berlin and Washington are probably as poor as they’ve been since Angela Merkel replaced Schroeder in 2005 and set Germany on a course of reconciliation with the United States.

After becoming accustomed to dinners in the White House, barbecues and back-rubs with Bush in his Europe-friendly second term, Merkel and her advisers in Berlin are agonising over a series of slights (perceived or real) from Obama since he came to office in January. 

First came the message from Washington that Obama might not continue the regular videoconferences Merkel held with Bush. In the end the White House came around, but it took two months to set one up.

Berlin also got the cold shoulder when Merkel tried to arrange a trip to Washington ahead of a G20 meeting in London at the start of April. Messages from Berlin with proposed dates went unanswered for days until Merkel’s team abandoned the idea completely, an official close to her told me.

This week came the latest signal, at least from Berlin’s perspective, that the Obama team is not taking German concerns seriously. 

The rescue of Opel, the German unit of U.S. carmaker General Motors, has become the central theme of a slow-to-get-started German election campaign that pits Merkel against her Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. A misstep on Opel and Merkel’s bid for a second term could be doomed.

But when she called an “Opel summit” for Wednesday to try to save the carmaker, her ministers were shocked to see only low-level representation from the U.S. Treasury — a crucial player in the discussions.

Merkel’s team in the Chancellery ended up excluding the envoy from the nitty gritty talks and a teleconference was set up with Ron Bloom, the former investment banker and  United Steel Workers veteran that was brought into the Treasury earlier this year to advise on auto bailouts.

The outrage at the U.S. stance, its nonchalant attitude and lack of preparation for the meeting was palpable in the voices Merkel’s ministers when they emerged from the 12-hour marathon to announce to weary reporters that no deal had been sealed.  

Some in Berlin have suggested that Obama is still punishing Merkel for not allowing him to speak at the Brandenburg Gate when he passed through Berlin last summer in the midst of his rousing campaign for the presidency.

According to this view, her government’s refusal to take on inmates from Guantanamo Bay, the prison for terrorist suspects Merkel lobbied hard to close, has reinforced the resentment in the Obama camp.

This might explain Obama’s decision to avoid Berlin when he visits Germany next week (he will go to Dresden and tour the Buchenwald concentration camp in the eastern state of Thuringia). Because Merkel failed to help him out during his election campaign, Obama is refusing to give her the honour of hosting him during hers.

But the truth may be less complicated. Obama has a daunting list of problems to tackle — from a sinking economy  to a worryingly complex set of foreign policy challenges in North Korea, Pakistan and Iran. Against that backdrop, he may not need Germany or Merkel as much as Berlin would like.


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“no deal had been sealed”
That’s a very US-friendly, restrained statement. Actually, some of the words uttered by usually very diplomatic German politicians were: “bizarre”, “outrage”, “disaster”, “chaos”, “scandalous”, “shocking”.

Hmm, why didn’t Reuters quote at least some of those statements, like AFP did, to show the reader the real level of German infuriation?

Posted by Gray | Report as abusive

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Posted by A return of “ignore Germany” under Obama? – Reuters | Fizyka | Report as abusive

Well it looks like Germany and Japan can shake hands, the US is giving the cold shoulder to two of their closest allies. Alienating the number two and four economies of the world isn’t a smart move to say the least. But at the moment you get the impression that me, myself and China is all that matters to the US.

Posted by Nikkei 225 | Report as abusive

What did you expect? The new president is a Democrat (democrat=socialist), (socialist=communist), It is not surprising that a Democrat would snub a Noble Republic like Germany. At least not to us Americans who actually pay attention.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

The US-German relationship isn’t as special as many Atlanticists would have you believe. Even with Merkel, Germany’s Foreign Policy have changed in rhetoric but not in reality.

1) Germany has provided no troops to occupy Iraq.
2) Germany has opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan.
3) Germany opposes NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.
4) Germany sees Russia as a strategic partner and considers Russia’s interests.
5) Germany is in favour of greater financial regulation, US and UK oppose it.
6) Germany has ordered its gold held by the NY Fed Res back.

You can say the same thing about France.

Posted by Mo | Report as abusive

Bill, you should probably quiet down and let the big kids talk. You sound like a middle school-aged child when you spout nonsense like comparing Democrats to Communists. Communists are much more far left on the spectrum than the typical Democrat, just liked Fascists and Republicans are both right-wing, but Fascists are much more far right.
Maybe you should look up what being a Democrat (or a Socialist or Communist, for that matter) actually means.

Posted by R | Report as abusive

Merkel got back-rubs from Bush, but she gets only a cold shoulder from Obama…

Chancellor Merkel is "agonising over a series of slights (perceived or real) from Obama," opines Reuters’ chief correspondent Noah Barkin (HT: David)

First came the message from Washington that Obama might not continue the regular video c…

Posted by Atlantic Review | Report as abusive

Tough bananas, I say. I just think Obama thinks Germany can take care of itself. But Germans love to get their knickers in a twist about how everyone ignores them when after all aren’t they so superior?
And have you noticed? The cold war is over, so all this stuff about Commies and Socialists does not resonate the way it used to.

Posted by Hattie | Report as abusive