Globalist Perspective

On Obamamania and the German Election

How does Germany perceive President Obama?

Takeaways


  • If there is one theme in the Obama presidency, it is his call for a community of responsibility where we all do our part. It is a concept tailor-made for Germans' sense and sensibilities.
  • Touting emissions reductions may work for Germany, but the United States will not shut down a quarter of its industry to meet unreasonable targets.
  • Pundits say that if Mr. Obama's outreach does not lead to reciprocal efforts and supporting initiatives and programs in Germany or in Europe, he will look for other partners.
  • U.S. expectations of our strongest ally in Europe are high as U.S. policymakers seek Germany's contributions to global solutions.
  • Personal relations between Obama and Merkel are cordial. However, the formulation of a long-term strategy for U.S.-German relations will be on hold until after the election.

Obamamania" is alive and well in Germany. According to the German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends report, President Obama's popularity is almost stratospheric. Support of the current U.S. president jumped to 80% in Germany, compared to a favorability rating for the United States among Germans that bottomed out at 30% in 2007.

The Obama Administration has certainly re-established good will — and prospects for continued pursuit of common policies with Germany after the country's September 27 Bundestag election seem outstanding. In fact, the buzz in Berlin is how President Obama is reaching out to Germany.

However, pundits say that if Mr. Obama's outreach does not lead to reciprocal efforts and supporting initiatives and programs in Germany or in Europe, he will look for other partners for the United States of America.

To be sure, foreign policy challenges abound. Afghanistan took center stage in the current German electoral campaign with the German-ordered aerial attack on the Taliban that incurred civilian casualties. Resurgent Russia is also an irritant since it still has troops stationed in Georgia.

Complicating a joint transatlantic response is that the EU still does not have a common foreign and military policy and integrated military. Likewise, the Balkan problem has really not been resolved. Energy security is worrisome, given over reliance on Russian gas, especially through Ukraine.

U.S. expectations of our strongest ally in Europe are high as U.S. policymakers seek Germany's contributions to global solutions — be it the financial crisis, strengthening NATO's military force in Afghanistan/Pakistan, global warming, a resurgent Russia and other issues that will be critical for advancing U.S. foreign policy.

If there is one theme in the Obama presidency, it is his call for a community of responsibility where we all do our part. It is what Germans might call a "Verantwortungsgemeinschaft," or a community of responsible partners. Obama's challenge is to convince America's friends that all must share global responsibility.

And yet, to Europeans in general and Germans in particular, the updated U.S. approach still sounds like a repetition of an old litany of European failings. They have heard the call to end their vacation from responsibility: that the Cold War is over — and that everyone needs to step up to accept new responsibilities.

Nevertheless, what they continue to hear first and foremost from this side of the Atlantic is that they just do not do enough. Those are strong messages. Objectively, those warnings that the world has changed and everyone has new responsibilities are true.

With the election campaign now in full swing in Germany, Christian Democratic Union Chancellor Angela Merkel and Social Democratic Party Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are jockeying for political advantage on every issue. The Left Party, the Greens and the Free Democrats are picking up support in the polls.

Today the polls show the conservative Christian Democratic Union at 35%, the Social Democrats at 23%, the pro-business Free Democrats at 14%, the Greens at 12% and the hard-left Linke at 9%. The remaining 24 parties may capture some 6% of the vote, according to the latest polls.

In all likelihood, the most important battle will be joined after the voting in coalition building. Negotiations for a new coalition among the five parties will be protracted if there is no clear majority with two parties. The only certainty is that there will be a huge struggle to build a coalition.

Personal relations between President Barack Obama and Chancellor Angela Merkel are cordial. However, the formulation of a long-term strategy for U.S. relations with Germany will be on hold until after the election.

Looking ahead, it is useful to reflect upon the points of disagreement raised in framing the German position at the London, Washington and Pittsburgh G-20 summits. One difference was the level of fiscal stimulus Germany and the United States each would make. In the April 2009 London summit, the United States proposed that Germany contribute a higher percentage of its GDP than it was willing to make.

The Germans argued that the social-safety programs they already have in place, such as unemployment insurance and healthcare programs (which are larger than their U.S. counterparts), provide automatic stimulus because they are used most heavily during economic recessions.

That exchange, while grabbing headlines, actually produced more heat than light. In the end, the United States and Germany have stimulus programs surprisingly similar in size. The IMF reported the size of the U.S. stimulus in 2009 at 1.9% of GDP — and Germany's at 1.5%. And looking ahead to 2010, the United States plans stimulus of 1.9% of GDP, compared with 2.0% for Germany.

A pivotal issue that remains unresolved is coordinating regulatory reforms between the United States and EU to help banks become healthy again and resume lending. At the Pittsburgh G-20 summit, Chancellor Merkel will propose a “Charter for Sustainable Economic Activity.”

She has stated repeatedly that the current global economic and financial crisis must not be allowed to repeat itself. Rhetorical flourishes aside, count on the U.S. government to resist those efforts — whether on restricting compensations or other matters.

A third contentious issue between Washington and Berlin is the German thinking on climate change.

Although the United States is moving toward "cap-and-trade" legislation, German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel has criticized the Waxman bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives as offering only minimal reductions. The debate in the U.S. Senate continues with an uncertain outcome on the road to Copenhagen.

The German commitment to combating climate change is impressive. However, there is no denying that much of the German CO2 reductions came from shutting down East Germany's economy after unification. Touting those reductions may work for Germany, but the United States will not shut down a quarter of its industry to meet unreasonable targets.

We have moved closer to a compromise by moving the goalpost toward a ten-year target or a shifting one. President Obama has made a major move on the federal level, and change had already begun in the private sector and on the state level, such as in California and the Mid-Atlantic states. But the United States will not achieve the European goal of 20-2020, a 20% reduction by 2020.

A common U.S.-German policy is simply necessary to create a more united front, if we are ever to get concessions from India and China. Any agreement must be financed, which is the key to winning support from the two emerging Asian giants.

Most likely an international regime with shared financial responsibility by industrial and developing countries is needed. While the Germans are with us on understanding the problem, they still are not with us on the remedy.

Finally, a fourth issue is Afghanistan. Afghanistan is not only a test case for NATO, it is defining Germany's role in global security.

NATO's war in Afghanistan needs Germany's politicians to debate and decide to deploy Bundeswehr forces beyond fall 2009 to help ensure success in Afghanistan.

Germany is up to the task. The threat from a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan supporting Al Qaeda, an unstable Pakistan armed with nuclear weapons and an uncertain outcome in Iraq are real threats — and call for political courage.

Germany has shown that it can debate and can agree on use of force when necessary to back up intelligence agencies and law enforcement to defeat terrorism. It has shown that it can lead economic development and nation-building efforts through its success in Afghanistan's Northern provinces.

The unavoidable debate will show that Germany today is the Germany we have come to expect from a democratically strong and militarily responsible partner in securing peace in Afghanistan with us in NATO.

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About J.D. Bindenagel

J.D. Bindenagel is a former U.S. Ambassador and currently the Henry Kissinger Professor for Governance and International Security, University of Bonn. [Germany]

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