Will Merkel’s final visit to Washington improve German-American relations?
Angela Merkel will meet the fourth US president during her 16-year long tenure as German Chancellor. This will be her last meeting as leader of Germany, as she will step down following the German national elections next September. Why is a lame chancellor making the trip, what is her legacy for German-American relations and what are the prospects for relations with the post-Merkel government in Berlin?
Everyone in Washington knows she is set to come out and will have limited impact on German politics in her final days as Chancellor, a point highlighted by her failure to push through a European summit. with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The visit comes after a recent foray by his chief foreign policy adviser into Washington in which the main contentious issue between the two sides, the German-Russian gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, was discussed. The Biden administration dropped US sanctions on the project despite opposition from Congress and the reluctance of its own State Department to lift the sanctions. The United States needs Germany for its long-term policies with Russia and China, and President Joe Biden has put those broader strategic priorities ahead of tactical ones that run counter to his strategic goals. Merkel made it clear that Nord Stream 2 is a departure and why continue to oppose a train that has left the station. But she also knows that this decision comes with expectations of reciprocal action.
Biden’s top priority is to undo the damage to transatlantic relations and in particular to German-American relations caused by the Trump administration. The former president had done everything possible to designate Merkel and Germany as more of an adversary than an ally. The visit will serve the symbolic purpose of “America is Back” by pointing out that the German-American relationship is back and that the Trump approach so slavishly executed by his ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, is over.
This visit also allows for a closing perspective on Merkel’s legacy for the relationship. Here, the picture is decidedly mixed. Merkel is a transactional leader who has had to manage coalition governments during her tenure, mainly with the Social Democratic Party. Moreover, she is a cautious and rational leader shaped not only by the agitated German political system, but also by her training as a scientist in East Germany, her gender and her religion. She is not only the first female chancellor, but the first Protestant leader of her predominantly Catholic party. Its leadership has been characterized by responses to crises rather than initiatives and a strong geo-economic orientation.
Despite these constraints, Merkel managed to keep Europe united amid Brexit, the euro crises and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. She has also managed relations with Washington through four very different presidencies. Merkel dealt with the whiplash of those experiences by focusing firmly on negotiating through them, a strategy she used both at home, in Brussels in her relations with the EU, or with Washington. While many of her counterparts often nurtured their egos and self-narcissism, Merkel retained a composure that earned her the sixteen-year term in office while watching other leaders come and go. Merkel guided Germany to become a more confident and respected leader on the world stage. But it did not seek to fundamentally change the consensus in Germany, especially on defense policy.
After that ? Merkelism without Merkel?
This experience will be lacking in a new government in Berlin, whatever the makeup of the coalition. A potential coalition between the leader of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, Armin Laschet, and the leader of the Green Party Analena Baerbock, will bring together two people who have limited experience of the complexities of Washington politics. This was also the case for Angela Merkel when she took office in 2005, when German-American relations were at their lowest. The new chancellor will be greeted by an American president and his secretary of state, both of whom have just underlined the importance of the relationship with Berlin for the United States.
The challenges and choices that Germany still face require recognizing that the relationship with the United States is “back”. They also require betting on Germany’s ability to exercise the responsibility to protect Europe which has enabled Germany to become its most important partner. Washington’s expectations will primarily be shaped around a new set of challenges ranging from climate and health to new emerging geopolitics in China’s rise to power and Moscow threats while supporting both values and policies. institutions linking democracies contested by autocracies. It is not yet known whether the new German leadership is ready to join these expectations. A post-Merkel government is unlikely to stray significantly from the path Merkel took as it was largely in tune with the German public. Laschet made it clear that he would pursue a geoeconomic approach towards China and Russia and warned of a new cold war with Beijing. Baerbock and the Greens will push for a tougher stance on human rights. Neither of them seems interested in redefining the security parameters which remain a political mine in German politics, especially in an election year.
During her meeting with Biden, the Chancellor could try to provide a framework for understanding how Germany’s leaders will approach these issues while Biden in turn outlines his strategies and expectations. But they will both be aware that the German-American relationship is on hold during a period of transition as the two countries redefine how, when, where and why they need each other. The responses recently discussed at the G7 and NATO summits were a prelude to political decisions yet to be made. They need each other but less than during the Cold War and in different ways. So while the relationship is clearly stronger than it was under Trump, old America is not back and the Germans know it.
When Merkel was still an unknown political figure in the German Democratic Republic in the spring of 1989, another American president explained what he thought the German-American relationship meant. It was George Herbert Walker Bush who presented it as a leadership partnership. He added: With leadership comes responsibility. More than three decades later, Germany continues to struggle with what it demands. As Merkel leaves the Chancellery for the last time, her successor will be no less contested than German-American relations.
Jackson Janes is President Emeritus of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and Senior Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Stephen F. Szabo is Senior Fellow, The American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and Assistant Professor, Georgetown University