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Can Merkel Repair Fractured U.S.-German Relations?



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Berlin — German chancellor Angela Merkel is slated to meet President Obama this evening and tomorrow in Washington for policy discussions, and for Obama to present Merkel with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s top civilian award. It is issued for “significant contributions to U.S. security or national interests, world peace, or other notable endeavors.”

But Merkel’s record on U.S. national interests has been decidedly mixed. At best, the foreign policy of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) administration — in coalition with the pro-business Free Democratic Party and the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union — shows a perplexing and unfortunate continuity with that of her Social Democratic predecessor, Gerhard Schröder.

Over the last eight years, Germany has hit American presidents with a one-two punch. First, Schröder refused to support Washington’s effort to remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Then his government and Merkel’s issued rules that have prevented German soldiers in Afghanistan from engaging in combat, making daily patrols and searches considerably more dangerous for U.S. and other international troops. Now, Merkel sits idly by as France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. attempt to end Muammar Qaddafi’s blood-soaked rule in Libya.

Perhaps most offensively, Merkel’s government stood shoulder to shoulder with Russia and China at the U.N. Security Council, abstaining from the vote endorsing a no-fly zone over Libya in hopes of protecting civilians from Qaddafi’s attacks.

Merkel is Berlin’s first East German–born chancellor, and her experience and rejection of Communism have understandably electrified Americans. She famously said, “Freedom does not come about of itself. It must be struggled for, and then defended anew, every day of our lives.” And, to her credit, Merkel has at least kept Germany’s roughly 5,000-strong military contingent in Afghanistan. Merkel also celebrated the success of the U.S. Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden. “I’m glad that killing Bin Laden was successful,” she said after the raid.

But she soon watered down her remarks in the face of a wave of domestic criticism, including the ironic comment of former Social Democratic chancellor and World War II–era Wehrmacht soldier Helmut Schmidt that bin Laden’s targeted killing was “clearly a violation of international law.” 

The New York Post issued a stinging rejoinder: “As if any German has standing to lecture anybody about international morality before, say, May 8, 2045, the 100th anniversary of V-E Day.”

Merkel’s government has also succumbed to rising political pressure by declining to share valuable intelligence information that would enable American drones to wipe out terrorists in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. According to a Der Spiegel magazine article last month, Germany’s interior ministry and the Verfassungsschutz, its domestic intelligence agency, have stopped providing the U.S. government with data that could help locate radical German Islamists for drone strikes on the battlefields of South Asia. The German government furnishes telephone numbers to the Americans upon request, but not locations.

Merkel’s first instincts are usually right, and it is terribly disappointing when she backtracks. Will she be able to repair Berlin’s relations with Washington?

She could start with three gestures. First, Germany could realign itself with NATO and join military actions in support of the pro-democracy forces in Libya. Second, Germany could cut short its flourishing trade with Iran, which reached over €4 billion last year, and follow U.S. sanctions that aim to deny Iran’s leaders the technology and resources to advance their radical ambitions. Lastly, Germany could recommit to helping the United States find terrorists and bring them to justice, and contribute more in Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers continue to confront a resurgent Taliban.

Those would truly be “significant contributions to U.S. security or national interests [and] world peace.”

Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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