Merkel and Obama don't always see eye to eye

The German chancellor, who visits the White House Friday, has criticized Obama's fiscal policies and refused to substantially increase troop levels in Afghanistan.

Gerald Herbert/AP
President Barack Obama (l.) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel after their joint press conference at Dresden Castle in Dresden, Germany on June 5.

A year ago, presidential candidate Barack Obama received a rapturous welcome in Berlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is not likely to receive a similar reception when she comes to Washington to meet with President Obama Friday.

Chancellor Merkel – like Obama, a cool academic by training – continues to make digs at the US over the international economic crisis, and with Germany refusing either to send a substantial number of new troops to Afghanistan or to take any of Guantánamo's detainees, the stage seems set for polite disagreement.

In a statement circulated by the German Embassy in Washington, Merkel said she "wants to discuss with President Obama how to return to sustainable economic activity." To some economists, that was a veiled commentary on some of Obama's economic measures, including the stimulus package and banking bailouts. Merkel has criticized them as inflationary and unsustainable.

The chancellor has also joined a chorus of German and other European leaders in laying blame for the crisis on Wall Street's excesses and lax American regulation.

Emphasizing common ground

Still, the two leaders also have issues on which they agree and an apparent appreciation for each other's pragmatic approach to global issues. They are expected to emphasize those similarities in their joint press conference Friday morning.

"Yes, the Germans are clearly worried about our debt," says Karen Donfried, executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund in Washington. "But at the same time, I think we'll see expressions of a greater level of agreement on issues like Iran and global warming."

Merkel was one of the first Western leaders to call for a full recount in Iran's disputed presidential election, and German officials have expressed satisfaction with Obama's toughened language this week on Iran.

Climate change is a little trickier. Yes, as Dr. Donfried says, "The Germans are clearly delighted to have a US president who says climate change is a result of human activity and must be addressed" as such. Merkel and Obama both want to see a robust international effort to stem production of greenhouse gases.

'A certain disquiet' in Europe

But the Germans and others in Europe also want to see more from Washington.

"There is accord, but at the same time there's beginning to be a certain disquiet," says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "Angela Merkel and other European leaders would like to see much greater leadership form the US and much more in the way of carbon reduction commitments."

Too much focus on whether there was Obama-Merkel "chemistry" masks a more consequential drift between the two countries over the key issues before them, says Ms. Conley.

"All of this speculation on the personal dynamics has only served to overshadow the growing policy disagreements," says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Besides economic measures, she cites Afghanistan, the handing of Guantánamo detainees, and even climate change.

The differences suggest that the two leaders are dealing with different pressures and different interests, says Donfried. Merkel faces elections in late September; Obama must face skepticism on climate measures from industrial states.

But one area of interest for Obama will be Merkel's Russian expertise, experts say. Merkel, who hails from the former East Germany, has insights Obama can use as he prepares for his coming summit with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow.

"Obama has a lot riding on this meeting in Moscow," says Conley, "so I think there will be a useful comparing of notes ... and a sharing of strategies."

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