Merkel's White House test: suppress anger over NSA to show unity on Ukraine

The uncomfortable issue of NSA spying on America’s allies is sure to come up when Germany's Angela Merkel and Obama meet Friday, but the crisis in Ukraine will dominate their agenda.

Jerry Lampen/AP/File
President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel smile during a meeting with other G7 world leaders in The Hague, Netherlands, in March. Merkel visits the White House Friday for lunch and several hours of talks with Obama.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will still be smarting from last year’s revelations of US eavesdropping on her cellphone when she visits the White House Friday for lunch and several hours of talks with President Obama.

But even if the nagging issue of the National Security Agency spying on America’s allies is sure to come up, the crisis in Ukraine – and in particular coordination of the transatlantic response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s challenge to European order – will dominate the agenda.

Facing the gravest challenge to stability in Europe since the cold war, the two leaders – both pragmatists and practitioners of a cautious and deliberate foreign policy – will be looking to each other for leadership in addressing the Ukraine storm.

Ms. Merkel – the Western leader with the closest personal relationship with Mr. Putin, and whose country has the strongest economic ties to Russia – can be expected to argue for continuing a careful “step-by-step” approach to Russian aggression, transatlantic experts say. Merkel was deeply disappointed by Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the campaign of destabilization he is carrying out in eastern Ukraine, German experts say, and now believes a tough Western response is in order.

At the same time, she is likely to encourage Mr. Obama to continue with his approach of coordinating with Europe and prioritizing transatlantic unity over unilateral action, they add – despite the domestic criticism Merkel knows Obama faces for not moving faster.

“Merkel’s response to the crisis has been a little bit tougher than some might have expected,” says Christopher Chivvis, a specialist in European and Eurasian security at RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va. It’s also true, he adds, that because of Germany’s leadership role in Europe and its dominant role in relations with Russia, “what she says has a really big impact in the region.”

As a result of Merkel’s somewhat surprising firmness and the influential role she plays, Mr. Chivvis anticipates an effort by Obama to enlist Germany to go farther and do more.

“I would expect the president will try to lean in a little bit on Ukraine,” he says.

Obama has refrained from imposing sanctions on entire sectors of the Russian economy in part because of European reluctance to go that route. But the president is expected to try to pin down with Merkel what additional Russian actions in Ukraine would trigger tougher measures from the Europeans, including broader sectoral sanctions, US officials say.

On the Ukraine file, the two leaders will have more than just the issue of sanctions on Russia to keep them busy. Another priority item will be how to help ensure that the national elections Ukraine has scheduled for May 25 go off without major hitches (many regional experts believe Russia is doing everything it can to undermine the vote) and result in a legitimate and authoritative national government.

Ukraine’s economic survival will also be on the agenda. In addition to her White House visit, Merkel will also meet with International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde to discuss what financial and economic help Ukraine will need to get back on its feet.

Merkel is also scheduled to address the US Chamber of Commerce Friday afternoon, focusing on the transatlantic free trade and investment agreement that the US and European Union are hoping to conclude next year. She was planning to dine with a group of US senators upon her arrival in Washington Thursday evening.

Yet even as Ukraine receives top billing in Merkel’s visit, the outrage she – and indeed much of Germany – felt upon learning last year of NSA spying on German leaders, including Merkel, will not be far below the surface.

When Obama invited Merkel to Washington earlier this year, she said pointedly that the process of reestablishing trust would take “more than one trip.” Germany has pressed for a “no-spy” accord with the US like the one the US has with Britain and a few other English-speaking allies, but the US has made it clear it is not prepared to take that step, and Merkel is not expected to insist on that point.

This willingness to downplay an important issue that risks getting in the way of addressing another will put Merkel’s pragmatism on full display. It also provides a stark contrast with the response of another world leader who found her country embroiled in the NSA spying controversy.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff had been invited for what would have been the only state visit to the Obama White House last year. But with Brazilians still furious over revelations of US spying in their country, Ms. Rousseff called off the visit. US-Brazilian relations have not recovered since.

Merkel also faces heightened anti-American sentiments at home, German experts note. But she also supports a strong transatlantic partnership, these experts emphasize, and she represents a Germany that sees a continuing US leadership role in Europe as all the more important in the era of an aggressive and even expansionist Russia.

“The Germans want to stay close to the US, they don’t want the story [from Merkel’s visit] to be one of divergence,” says Charles Ries, international vice president and expert in European Affairs at RAND.

But Ambassador Ries, who just returned to Washington from Europe, says German leaders and many of their European colleagues want the US to consult with them and take their concerns into consideration even as it retains an active role in Europe.

“Often they grumble if we don’t set out a clear [path] … but they can also grumble if we do,” says Ries. “What they really don’t like is when the US seems to be not acting.”

That ambivalence presents “a leadership challenge for the US,” he says.

Some similar ambivalence will no doubt accompany Merkel into the Oval Office, as she seeks some attention to the NSA spying discord even as the Ukraine crisis dominates the day.

Some public expression of understanding from Obama about Germany’s spying concerns might be enough to deliver the picture of firm accord on Ukraine the White House wants. “If [Merkel] gets that,” Ries, says, it’s likely the US “can get an outcome from the White House visit that [projects] strong alliance unity and resolve.”

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