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Tipsheet

The U.S.-German Relationship: Is It Starting To Feel A Little Chilly In Here?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in D.C. this week to talk policy and to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom at an official state dinner, but all of the diplomatic niceness is helping to cover the two leaders’ perturbation with one another. Washington has lately been vexed with Berlin for its decision to end nuclear power by 2022 and its abstention from the UN Security Council’s vote to impose a no-fly zone in Libya. In turn, Merkel is irked with Obama for his handling of the Libyan intervention and for his repeated economic fails, according to Der Spiegel:

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Berlin views Obama's actions related to the Middle East conflict as particularly damaging. The government reportedly believes that Obama's most fundamental misstep came last September when he spoke before the UN General Assembly and predicted that a Palestinian state would be welcomed as a new member of the global community within a year. In Berlin, many feel it only served to foster unreasonable expectations among Palestinians -- and to anger the Israelis.

Merkel also resents Obama for having initially spoken out against intervening in Libya and then allowing pressure from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other advisers to change his mind. She believes that Obama did not give enough thought to the consequences of intervening in Libya and that doing so ended up putting Germany in an awkward position.

In the US, on the other hand, Germany's abstention in the UN Security Council vote was viewed as an effort to shirk its responsibility. "Merkel's Germany is now the most powerful country in Europe," says Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Washington-based Transatlantic Academy, "yet it still wants to act like Switzerland."…

Still, it wasn't too long ago that Americans viewed Merkel's Germany as their most important partner in Europe. Unlike her predecessor in office, Gerhard Schröder, Merkel enjoyed a reputation for being pro-American and reliable. Indeed, people in America thought that growing up in communist East Germany had given Merkel a special appreciation for the American understanding of freedom. It even made them more forgiving when Merkel openly criticized US policies, like the operation of the Guantanamo prison camp.

However, as it became clear during the G-8 summit held two weeks ago at the French coastal resort of Deauville, Merkel has exhausted that goodwill. Obama held one-on-one talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the summit's host, and went on to shower him with praise for "the leadership that he's shown on the world stage over the last several years." But he only came face-to-face with Merkel during the general working rounds. …

At a basic level, Americans and Germans have different ideas about what post-crisis economic policies should look like. The Germans believe in drastic cuts, painful austerity packages, belt-tightening and structural reforms. In the United States, on the other hand, people are only slowly starting to realize that the country's high mountain of debt might become a problem.
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Germany is also big on pushing a “green economy” and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and Americans were therefore confused by their simultaneous post-Japanese-earthquakes vote to close down all nuclear power plants over the next decade. And the relationship gets even terser when it comes to winning the war in Afghanistan. Germany’s 5,000 soldiers in the region make it the third-largest troop-contributor, but some German parliamentarians are calling for an end to the war and a specific withdrawal date.

Despite the several sources of tension, the two leaders are of course putting on a good show and offered a pretty tame presser this afternoon, although Obama did say that he is “not concerned about a double-dip recession” and that he is unsure whether the bleak unemployment report is a “one-month episode or a longer trend.”

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