The Obama administration is extending an exceptionnally warm reception to Chancellor Angela Merkel even though she recently opposed Washington on Libya and on so many economic issues. Why?
One possible answer, coming from Transatlantic Academy director Stephen F. Szabo, is a complex U.S. calculation that a reluctant Merkel and a reluctant Germany must eventually face up to Berlin's role as the only candidate to fill a gaping power vacuum and lack of leadership in Europe.
"Washington does not see Germany or its Chancellor filling the vacuum being left by the EU and the United States, but sees no other realistic alternative. It calculates that Berlin will soon realize that the United States will not play the leadership role in Europe it has over the past seven decades and will have no choice but to lead or flounder, so Washington hopes that by treating Angela Merkel as Europe’s leader she will start to act like it."
Szabo's Germano-centric interpretation of U.S. policy in Europe is open to many objections and counter-arguments -- notably the axiom that Germany has always needed France as its ally to play a leading role in Europe. That seems to remain true today, with Paris siding with Berlin in seeking better eurozone goverance as the quid pro quo for more financial aide to debt-burdened economies. And it is France and Britain that have led the NATO-run intervention in Libya. Of course, Mr. Szabo's argument focuses on the long run run, not the immediate present. But the long run may be too remote for Merkel to matter or indeed for Germany to bring to bear its economic and its latent military power. So the alleged U.S. hope may be so remote that it is misplaced.
That may be. But Szabo argues that Washington and Berlin and the rest of the West have no alternative.but to try convincing Berlin to assume more burdens and more leadership.
His article is not available on-line but here is a copy of the e-mail version he has circulated:
"Why Merkel Matters?" by Stephen F. Szabo
WASHINGTON -- The official visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the United States this week and the decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to award her the Presidential Medal of Freedom have raised some eyebrows in Washington. Why roll out the red carpet and present this honor to someone who has been a reluctant partner at best, who takes the Chinese position in its currency dispute with the United States, who has dithered over the European debt crisis and provided uncertain leadership in Europe, and whose government abstained on the UN Security Council vote on actions in Libya, joining both China and Russia in the process?
Granted, the Medal of Freedom was to be awarded in February, long before the Libya abstention, but Merkel had to postpone her trip to receive it. Yet she will still receive a warm welcome in Washington. Why?
First, on Libya, the U.S. government itself was divided over what to do to confront the possibility of mass murder in Libya, changing its course at the last minute without much warning to the Germans and other European partners. Developments since the initial use of NATO force against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces have tended to reinforce Germany’s concerns and the American public and a good part of the Congress has largely turned against American involvement in this action. Still, Americans expected Germany to be on board in a UN-, NATO-, and Arab League-sanctioned action to prevent another Srebrenica. In abstaining, Merkel has clearly broken two fundamental pillars of German foreign policy, namely that Germany should never again go it alone and should never again tolerate genocide or mass murder. There is no doubt that she has lost a great deal of credibility in Washington over the past month, not only over Libya but also over her panicky reaction to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and her inept role in the European financial crisis. The strong Chancellor of her first term has been replaced by an image of a vacillating tactical politician in her second term.
Yet Washington will welcome her with outstretched arms -- including half of both the U.S. and German cabinets taking part in events and a lunch hosted by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- because it will celebrate the partner it wants not the partner it has. Ever the realist, Obama understands that Germany is now clearly the most powerful and important power in Europe. The United Kingdom may still hold the affections of many in Washington and remains the most militarily capable and reliable American ally in Europe, but Germany is Europe’s emerging power. Germany’s economic revival and rise stands in sharp contrast not only to the decline of the American economy but to the state of most of the European economies as well. It is now a global economic power ranking second behind China in terms of exports and accounting for roughly half of all European exports to China. Its private sector is a model for how to upgrade and maintain an industrial base in a global market. Its social welfare state may be creaking but stands in robust contrast to its American counterpart.
Washington had hoped that, following the Lisbon treaty, Europe would emerge as a key partner for an America that is fiscally strained and facing daunting strategic challenges in the Middle East and Asia. While these hopes remain, even the most Europhile Americans are disillusioned with the state of post-Lisbon Europe and have received a clear message from the big European powers -- especially Germany and France -- that they should deal with them rather than Brussels on key foreign and defense policies. And when Washington looks to these powers, it sees that Germany is the indispensable power in the Old Continent. It is the key player on Russia policy and is also important for policies in the countries between Russia and the EU. It remains committed to keeping its military contingent in Afghanistan and remains key on Iran sanctions. It will be the prime player in helping to avert a spread of the European financial crisis to America. As the United States shifts its attention toward Asia and to problems at home, it will need to rely on Berlin to manage European stability.
Yet Washington does not see Germany or its Chancellor filling the vacuum being left by the EU and the United States, but sees no other realistic alternative. It calculates that Berlin will soon realize that the United States will not play the leadership role in Europe it has over the past seven decades and will have no choice but to lead or flounder, so Washington hopes that by treating Angela Merkel as Europe’s leader she will start to act like it.
Stephen F. Szabo directs the Transatlantic Academy in Washington.