June 7, 2009

Obama’s Visit in Dresden – Ominous Auguries and a Happy End

Obama’s unofficial stop-over in Dresden on his way from Kairo to the D-Day celebrations in France could not have taken place under more ominous signs. His plans to visit the site of the Buchenwald concentration-camp, which his great uncle has helped to free, and to check up on injured US soldiers who are being treated in the US army hospital in Landstuhl have left very little time for substantial meetings with Merkel and other German dignitaries. In fact the chancellery has had to torture any additional agenda point out of Obama’s protocol staff. Though Obama finally agreed to visit the Frauenkirche and the Zwinger in Dresden, Germany remained unsuccessful in coaxing Obama to Berlin. Obama was however amenable to extend his visit to France by an additional night, in order to come to Paris as well as to the D-Day celebration in the Normandy, as French President Sarkozy noticed with some little gloating.

Obama’s unofficial stop-over in Dresden on his way from Kairo to the D-Day celebrations in France could not have taken place under more ominous signs. His plans to visit the site of the Buchenwald concentration-camp, which his great uncle has helped to free, and to check up on injured US soldiers who are being treated in the US army hospital in Landstuhl have left very little time for substantial meetings with Merkel and other German dignitaries. In fact the chancellery has had to torture any additional agenda point out of Obama’s protocol staff. Though Obama finally agreed to visit the Frauenkirche and the Zwinger in Dresden, Germany remained unsuccessful in coaxing Obama to Berlin. Obama was however amenable to extend his visit to France by an additional night, in order to come to Paris as well as to the D-Day celebration in the Normandy, as French President Sarkozy noticed with some little gloating.

So when have we arrived in this “stranger-than-fiction” parallel Universe, where Germany is shunted aside to the unmistakable sound of French jeering, so the US and France can perform a new round of courting rituals? Wasn’t France the European bogeyman and Germany the “good boy”? The answer to this is: when Obama took office. This might seem strange, since one would have thought the dispute over former president Bush’s Iraq campaign to be at the heart of a rift in US-German relations. But the truth is that Bush, while at stark odds with Schröder, enjoyed a very good relationship with Merkel, who he termed as “smart” and “one of a kind”. The Obama administration, on the other hand, views the German chancellor as difficult. Though the Obama administration is new, there have already been several issues in the realm of etiquette and politics which have tainted the Merkel-Obama relationship.

President Obama and his staff found Merkel quite difficult and obstinate when she refused to let the then-candidate Obama speak in front of the Brandenburg gate. They found her flat-out rude when Merkel refused an invitation to the White-House on the grounds that she and Obama would be meeting at the G-20 summit in a few days time anyway.

On the business side there are two obvious obstacles to smooth relations. The first is Afghanistan, where the US wants increased German effort and help in the dangerous south. Any move in that direction would however be political suicide in Germany, especially since Merkel is facing Parliamentary elections in the fall. Hence, Merkel is unable to live up to Obama’s expectations in this regard. The other major issue is the financial crisis, to which Merkel has responded inadequately and inexpertly in Obama’s view. The fact is that Merkel refused to spend the kind of money on stimulus packages that other nations did. Two reasons are behind this. Firstly, Merkel has fought her entire term for a balanced budget and is ill inclined to rip her efforts more than she absolutely has to. In addition, she views this crisis as being created by financing our western way of life with money we have never had. Therefore, combating this never before seen financial crisis by spending more money than we have ever never had, might just be too much to ask of her. Secondly, the German economy is heavily dependent on exports. This means that pumping money into the internal market is only going to be moderately successful, since it is third states buying German products that makes Germany wealthy. Hence, Germany can hope to profit from the stimulus-packages of other states, which will increase domestic demand for German imports.

One can easily see why France is getting the “carrot” at the moment. Sarkozy has reintegrated France into the NATO command structure, has promised more troops for Afhanistan and has spend an acceptable amount of money – from an American perspective – on bailing out the French economy.

Obama wouldn’t be Obama however if he didn’t exercise his uncanny knack to say exactly the right thing at the right time. In a great leap forward Obama has used his visit of the concentration-camp site not only to commemorate the victims and the liberators, but also to elevate this site to a symbol of reconciliation between enemies – among the European nations and between Germany and Israel – thereby exhibiting a change in the traditional historic view of Germany – that of a criminal – to one which incorporates Germany’s dealing with this difficult heritage and honours the meaning of learning from ones history. From a German perspective this means infinitely more for the bilateral relations than a presidential visit to Berlin.

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