Merkel state visit: Germany and its leadership deficit

Obama welcomes Chancellor Merkel on the first state visit of a European leader during his term. But tensions challenge the 'indispensable' alliance between the US and Germany.

As President Obama pursues his goal of sharing America’s global burdens and leadership, who among the European allies could help him most? Could it be Germany’s Angela Merkel?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has stepped up to the plate on Libya, participating heavily in NATO’s no-fly zone there. But that’s Africa, a French priority. On other issues, Paris can often be mercurial.

In London last month, Mr. Obama had the honor of sleeping at Buckingham Palace and speaking at Westminster Hall during a state visit. That underscores the historic “special relationship” between Britain and the United States.

But while the British are tried-and-true military allies and see themselves as a global player, they are not Europe’s leader. They don’t even share the euro currency, whose ups and downs can profoundly affect the US economy.

Germany, however, is Europe’s largest economy – rebounding strongly from recession – and the continent’s most populous country (after Russia). It’s an export powerhouse, second only to China. It embodies the merging of “new and old” Europe through its own reunification more than 20 years ago.

And so today, Obama acknowledged that weight by welcoming Chancellor Merkel with trumpets blaring in a state visit, the first for any European leader during his term. Tonight he will present her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

But the ceremonies hint more at Germany’s potential as a joint leader with America than the reality. The warm welcome masked tensions between the two.

The sore points from the US perspective: Germany abstaining from the no-fly resolution of the United Nations Security Council – along with Russia and China; Berlin’s decision to greatly accelerate the timetable to quit nuclear power – an energy source that Team Obama is trying to keep in the mix; differences over managing the global economy; and lately, the Greek debt crisis (generally, Berlin favors austerity and reform; Washington hasn’t caught up to that yet).

And there’s a new irritant. Germany was quick to blame Spain (incorrectly) as the source of a deadly outbreak of E. coli – reckless finger-pointing that caused needless fear and economic damage.

Berlin has its own gripes about Obama, whose lofty rhetoric has failed to deliver on climate change and that overpromised on Mideast peace. German officials have leveled their own charges of recklessness, including about Libya and US debt.

And yet, Obama could stand beside Merkel today and call the alliance between their two countries the “indispensable pillar” of the world. And Merkel could return the affirmation by calling the partnership as much of a “raison d’être” for German foreign policy as is European integration.

Indeed, shared trade, heritage, values, goals, and a long slog together through the cold war and its aftermath seal this tandem, despite the tensions. Germany has been a valuable partner on such issues as Iran sanctions and troops in Afghanistan (it has the third-largest foreign troop contingent there).

In the last two decades, various troop deployments abroad mark a historic shift from a purely defensive posture that grew out of Germany’s dark militaristic past. Gradually, Germany – or at least official Germany – is coming to grips with its greater responsibility in the world and a broader definition of defense.

Recent comments by the defense minister, Thomas de Maiziere, made in a German radio interview last month, are encouraging: “When one looks around the world where soldiers – from New Zealand, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway – are deployed and why they are there, then one comes to the conclusion that it’s a privilege and honor for these countries to act as part of the international community, taking on international responsibilities.”

“We must also ask ourselves such questions even when German interests are not directly at stake,” he said.

The world would welcome a speedier evolution of German leadership. As Obama pointed out, the Arab Spring is not a new story to Germans, who freed themselves from authoritarianism more than 20 years ago.

One wonders, however, whether the US president will heed the belt-tightening example of Europe.

These two leaders have something to teach each other.

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