November 3, 2009, Chancellor Angela Merkel became the first German head of government
to address both houses of the US Congress since Konrad Adenauer. The USA
expects Germany to reciprocate this honor in the form of sharing the burden of
international troop deployment, more state investments to revitalize the world
economy, and a willingness to impose stronger sanctions on Iran. Conversely,
due to domestic politics, Merkel's call for climate change legislation will
fall on largely deaf ears in Washington.
It is no accident that the invitation was offered by the "Madame Speaker" of the House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi embodies the expectations of Americans. She will expect a return for this gesture, namely that we help shoulder the load of American international commitments. Pelosi not only speaks for the chamber of Congress that is held more accountable for direct outcomes by the American people, but she also represents the pro-trade union wing of the Democratic party. There is a broad skepticism among US citizens regarding their government's international commitment. The tendency towards domestic naval-gazing is particularly pronounced among Democratic voters. The President's union constituency is not interested in wars on the other end of the world, rather they want their government to direct money towards social purposes and job creation.
Domestic considerations will also make it difficult for the US President to take the lead on international climate protection as the Chancellor and other Europeans have demanded. The preoccupation with economic pressures and the political attention on competing government projects like healthcare reform make it difficult for the US President to push through the necessary environmental legislation. Thus, the US will reject the all too ambitious CO2 goals at the preliminary meetings for the follow-up agreement to the Kyoto Protocol in Copenhagen.
Political priorities for Obama also rest in the domestic sphere. He was not elected because people regarded him as the best foreign policymaker or commander-in-chief of the US armed forces. The American people would have thought John McCain more suitable to that task. In the USA, 45 million people live without healthcare and another 30 million are under insured. With rising unemployment, social and economic insecurity also increases. These issues are relevant to a considerable portion of Obama's electorate - for whom he must achieve concrete results in order to avoid a political slap in the face in next year's mid-term elections.
Furthermore, the management of the finance, economic, and infrastructure problems in the United States will cost a lot of money that is not available because of the desolate budget situation left over by George W. Bush. Budget experts, as well as fiscally conservative Democrats, are already warning that the deficit is out of control. Therefore, Americans expect Germany to increase its stimulus programs in order to rejuvenate the world economy. Moreover, a stronger German commitment could reduce the financial and military burden of the United States: by pledging more money for the stabilization of Pakistan or the reconstruction of Iraq, or deploying more soldiers and police with less restriction to secure the situation in the Afghanistan theater. Finally, Washington expects Berlin to support sharper sanctions on Iran to prevent their gaining nuclear weapons.
Thus far American demands for increased deployment have been held back out of regard for our electoral season. Yet, now the grace period is over - and we will have to deliver. Driven by the expectations of the American people, elected officials in Congress and President Obama will demand the frequently sought "effective multilateralism" from Berlin.
Merkel thanked the USA not least for its help in German reunification and providing security during the Cold War. In return, the US now expects a more committed role from Germany, as suggested by Obama in his Berlin speech calling for a transfer of the "burden of global responsibility."
In addition, we will experience a fierce debate concerning the future of NATO. For the US, the alliance is a means of saddling the beneficiaries with the costs of deployment and to prevent free-riders. With his Berlin speech, Obama already made it clear that he does not see the North Atlantic Alliance as being prepared for the requirements of the new century. Should Europe not participate, we will forfeit any position to object if the US turns to Asian states to strengthen its position. In matters concerning NATO, Europeans continue to think within the structures of the Cold War, while the position of the US has evolved.
In the future Germany's ideas and concepts for international order will have even less sway in America should Chancellor Merkel not fulfill US expectations. Berlin is only in demand if the German government is prepared to share the lead. If not, we must be content with a position on the sidelines - at which point we will be unable to complain about American "unilateralism."
Dr. Josef Braml has been the Editor-in-Chief of the "Jahrbuch Internationale Politik" at the German Council on Foreign Relations (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik e.V), Berlin since October 2006. He is also a Resident Fellow in the Research Program USA/Transatlantic Relations.
Translated by Stefan Ducich, Atlantic Community Editorial Staff
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