A return of “ignore Germany” under Obama?
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.