Merkel’s reciprocal relationship with the US
Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave active politics after the German federal elections on 26 September 2021. As Merkel’s departure after sixteen years will resonate across Europe, the Clingendael Spectator invited several international experts to offer their personal reflections on her legacy. In this eighth and final episode of the series ‘Europe after Merkel’, Erik Jones explains how the German chancellor and a series of very different American presidents learned to work together despite their principled disagreements.
The thought of Angela Merkel and the transatlantic relationship sparks strong images. For example, think of Merkel’s surprised reaction when George W. Bush gave her a quick back massage in July 2006. Or of her initial scepticism as Barack Obama addressed a crowd of 200,000 during a campaign stop in Berlin two years later – and of her welcome when Obama returned as president to speak before the Brandenburg Gate in 2013.
Or recall the look of sadness in Merkel’s eyes when she last met Obama before he left office, and her resolve in confronting Donald Trump in the early months of his presidency. Or her determination when she stated that Europe can no longer rely on America to protect it in 2018.
These images are a reminder that all political relationships are personal as well as structural (or institutional). It is also a reminder that such relationships are not automatic. They grow over time and through consistent effort. Most importantly, they are reciprocal.
Chancellor Merkel learned to work with a series of very different American presidents. She was unafraid to speak truth to power from the beginning. She could also be disappointed, like when she learned that both the Bush and Obama administrations used the National Security Agency (NSA) and its relations with German intelligence services to tap her phones. But she was resilient. When she held her ground, those same presidents learned to work with her.
Cooperation between Germany and the United States was often challenging despite this high-level accommodation. The two countries have different interests and different policies to match; they also have different political dynamics. Merkel never showed much enthusiasm for American military intervention, for example.
Opposition to the American military approach
Merkel’s governments participated in the long occupation of Afghanistan, but only with restrictive rules of engagement. Her government refused to support the bombing of Libya in 2011 and would not have supported action in Syria either. Merkel was more eager to support diplomatic efforts, like those that culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with respect to Iran.
More fundamentally, successive German governments that Merkel led refused to expand resources for the military. When US Defence Secretary Robert Gates gave a valedictory address to NATO in June 2011, wherein he cautioned America’s European allies that American support is conditional on burden-sharing across the Atlantic, Merkel’s government continued to cut military spending.
These tensions were more about principle than opportunism
In December 2015, the accumulated lack of investment meant Merkel had to use a cargo plane to carry her to India. The diminished state of German military equipment became a running joke in Washington.
These tensions were more about principle than opportunism (or indolence, for that matter). The problem was not that Merkel and her governments failed to recognise security imperatives. It was that they disagreed with their American counterparts on political priorities.
Another hurdle: a clash in financial perspectives
Demonstrating fiscal integrity to shore up European macroeconomic policy coordination (and with it, the euro as a common currency) was more important to Merkel’s governments than purchasing military equipment; austerity necessarily involves hard choices.
The Obama administration was not ignorant of this position. They just had different priorities as well as a different understanding of government finance. They pushed Merkel hard to respond more decisively to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. There too was a clash of perspectives. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, for instance, worried about financial stability, whereas Germany’s Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble focused on moral hazard.
The failure of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was another area of principled disagreement. Both sides of the Atlantic wanted more trade and investment, not to mention the growth and employment that such forces could unleash. Both also hoped to create regulations and standards they could export to the rest of the world.
Where they differed was over the values those regulations and standards represented, particularly as they related to food safety, environmental protection, demonstration of compliance, and dispute resolution. When large-scale popular protests emerged in Europe over the secret nature of the talks, and specifically over the prospect that any conflict between states and firms would go to arbitration rather than get handled by the national courts, whatever hope existed for an easy agreement suddenly vanished.
In turn, the two sides came close to a deal on paper, but neither believed they had the domestic support for ratification. The election of Donald Trump saved everyone from embarrassment. Joe Biden’s election four years later did not change the fundamental calculus.
Finding common ground
Importantly, Germany and the United States could work together despite their disagreements. There are many examples where Merkel found common ground with her American counterparts. The JCPOA, for example, was one. The response to the 2014 Russian intervention in the Ukraine was another.
Germany has a different relationship with Russia than with the United States. This is, in large measure, due to relative geographic proximity and energy interdependence. When Russia annexed Crimea and began creating turmoil in the Donbas region, however, Merkel threw her support behind American leadership. When Ukrainian insurgents shot down a Korean airliner with an anti-aircraft missile provided by Russia, Merkel doubled down her efforts by working to unite European Union member states around comprehensive economic sanctions.
European sanctions on Russia were important because Russia depends far more on trade with Europe and access to European capital markets than on economic exchange with the United States. Many European countries also depend heavily on trade with Russia. This deep interdependence, in turn, made it easy to speculate that the European coalition in favour of sanctions would be short lived. Merkel ensured that it held together.
The United States continues to rely on Germany both as a partner and for the leadership role it plays within the European Union
This did not stop her governments from continuing to deepen their energy dependence on Russia. It also did not stop successive American administrations from objecting to the perceived hypocrisy involved in sanctioning Russia on the one hand and supporting Russian gas exports to Europe on the other. Merkel could live with the contradiction.
The tensions over this issue would in many ways come to define relations between Germany and the United States during Merkel’s final years in office. So did Merkel’s strong pushback against Trump’s bullying and hesitation over America’s commitment to NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the United States continues to rely on Germany both as a partner and for the leadership role it plays within the European Union. The relationship between the two countries is not automatic and cannot be taken for granted. As Merkel has demonstrated, however, that relationship is worth the investment for both Germany and the United States. This lesson is an important part of her legacy.