Obama's Germany trip can't be business as usual

President Obama's speech in Berlin today shows that America needs Germany to help with global issues. But German power has limits. Obama needs fresh ideas to help Europe and to fortify the transatlantic relationship, because the circumstances that created this bond no longer exist.

Michael Probst/AP
President Obama waves after disembarking from Air Force One at the Tegel airport in Berlin yesterday as First Lady Michelle Obama and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle look on. Op-ed contributor Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff says that 'the European crisis is slowly revealing a deeper truth: The US is still the indispensable nation for Europe.'

President Obama needs to offer some fresh ideas for the future of America's most important alliance – its partnership with Europe. After wrapping up the G8 summit this week in Northern Ireland, Mr. Obama is in Berlin today for his first official visit to Germany. There he will give a speech at the Brandenburg Gate, which has come to symbolize Berlin’s post-cold war reunification. This itinerary is entirely appropriate, given Germany's ascendancy as the Continent's pivotal power.

America needs Germany to help tackle global issues that the United States is unlikely to solve alone – issues such as Chinese cybertheft and Iran. And America needs it to be a forceful and generous guarantor of a fraying union of European nations that is still engulfed by an economic and governance crisis.

And yet, a speech at the Brandenburg Gate will not be enough to make the US-European partnership safe for the 21st century. A focus on Germany is a necessary baseline, but it is not the same as a policy for Europe – which is America's largest trading partner and most important military ally, and with which it shares democratic values.

German power has limits, and so does its ambition to lead, not to mention the willingness of Europeans to be led by Germany. Hence, America needs a broader strategy to help Europe recast itself in a transforming world, because the circumstances that created and maintained the transatlantic relationship – a cold war and a divided continent – are no more.

It was not by choice that the US became a "European power" in the 20th century. As scholar Simon Serfaty observes, America's costliest problems across the Atlantic grew out of ideas and projects that the Europeans "proposed and started, but could not pursue and complete – whether a war or a revolution earlier on, or a union and a single currency more recently." In each case, the US initially underestimated the depth of the problem and the danger it represented to American interests.

During the latest European malaise, America misread the nature of the problem. It was interpreted as a financial market calamity that the Europeans, and especially the Germans, were clearly rich enough to solve. America's interests were defined narrowly: How would Europe's crisis affect America's recovery (and the president's chances for reelection)? This analysis informed the response. Time and again, the Treasury secretary was sent to Europe to convey a message that the Europeans did not want to hear: You can do it, just stimulate your economies!

The US's hands-off approach to Europe has its roots in the success of America's own foreign policy. Two decades after the cold war had ended, Europe was no longer seen as America's problem, but as a solution to problems. It was America's indispensable ally when it came to tackling challenges elsewhere – in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa. Europe helped to legitimize American action; it provided capabilities; it stabilized unruly environs to its east.

But the European crisis is slowly revealing a deeper truth: The US is still the indispensable nation for Europe. Now in Year 4, the crisis has morphed from a financial market to a full-blown economic and political crisis that, at its heart, threatens the very idea of European integration. Europe is split into creditor and debtor nations, into north and south. Its French-German-British core is out of whack with the French not seeing eye to eye with the Germans, and the British threatening to leave the European Union.

Since 1917, the US has helped to draw and redraw the political and institutional map of Europe. It balanced Europe from afar and helped to give it purpose and direction. America got out of this business once "mission accomplished" was declared some years after the cold war ended. But now, the ghosts of friction and fragmentation are haunting Europe. Only at its own peril will America ignore this clear and present danger; only at its own peril will it continue its hands-off policy.

It has taken Mr. Obama a long time to adapt and start changing course. By agreeing to negotiate a US-European free-trade agreement, called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, he has given the clearest indication yet that he has finally come around – provided the trade pact is understood to be a strategic as much as an economic project.

The transatlantic marketplace is still the heart of the world economy, the rise of China and others notwithstanding. Boosting growth on both sides of the Atlantic is a worthy effort. But in the end, this negotiation must not be just about rules for chlorine-soaked poultry and genetically modified crops, but about the future of the West. An agreement will incentivize those European countries that are tempted to go it alone (for instance, Britain) to stay part of a larger integrated order. It will invite rising powers (i.e., China, Brazil, India, and Russia) to orient their economies and their rule books toward this reborn West.

The trade agreement should only be a building block toward a rebalanced transatlantic relationship. It needs also to be flanked by a new political engagement that realizes this relationship is no longer primarily about a common threat and a common defense. It is about engineering an economic rebound, about securing regional stability in Europe, and about shaping the global system of rules and treaties – and the bodies that decide them.

Beyond further improving a vital bilateral relationship with Berlin, this is what Obama should talk about with Germany's leaders.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff leads the EuroFuture Project at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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