Leaders of the U.S. and Germany seek common ground on issues dividing the close allies.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is slated to visit the White House on Monday.
Polarizing divisions will color President Barack Obama’s discussions with German Chancellor Angela Merkel when the supposedly staunch allies meet at the White House on Monday for talks expected to primarily address the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.
The meeting comes after a year of lingering tensions in a relationship that, at least publicly, was tested by reports of CIA spying and National Security Agency surveillance of the phone calls of Merkel and other European leaders.
The chancellor was expected to arrive in Washington after a furious round of shuttle diplomacy that saw her travel to Kiev on Thursday and to Moscow on Friday in an urgent bid to craft a diplomatic solution to the escalating conflict between government troops and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine – a crisis complicated last week when the White House suddenly reversed its long-held position and said it was considering arming the Ukrainians.
The possibility of a potential new strategy upended what had been a unified approach among the U.S. and its NATO allies of pursuing economic sanctions against interests in Moscow, as Merkel took point in applying diplomatic pressure to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom she reportedly spoke some 40 times in the last year.
With little time and a wide-ranging agenda that includes Ukraine, the ongoing battle against the Islamic State group, counterterrorism efforts and the global economy, the fissures in U.S.-German relations will likely have to be put aside.
“The world is definitely on fire. Violence is on the rise,” says Julianne Smith, a former deputy national security adviser for Vice President Joe Biden and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “President Obama and Chancellor Merkel will not have a lot of time for self-reflection on U.S.-German relations.”
Merkel’s last White House visit in May was accompanied by breathless headlines suggesting the relationship between the countries was at its lowest level since World War II. While German outrage on the official level did not diminish official cooperation, U.S. credibility eroded notably in Germany. Polling indicated a significant drop in German support for Obama and his foreign policy decisions, although a majority still supported him.
Friction increased in July when Merkel took the highly unusual step of ordering the CIA station chief in Berlin to leave the country amid reports that members of her country’s foreign intelligence service were passing information to the U.S. spy agency. Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert summed up the Germans’ awkward position.
“It remains vital for Germany, in the interest of the security of its citizens and its forces abroad, to cooperate closely and trustfully with Western partners, in particular with the USA,” he said in a statement at the time. “To do so, however, mutual trust and openness are necessary.”
Through much of the fall and into 2015, the crisis of trust seemed to take a back seat to unfolding situations not only in Ukraine but in Syria and Iraq, where a broad military coalition was assembled to confront the advances of the Islamic State group, and a terrorist attack in Paris in which 17 people were killed over three days. In fact, the relationship between the leaders and their security agencies remained “very close,” Smith says.
Germans are still concerned about the broad NSA spying revealed by former agency contractor Edward Snowden, but “the worst has passed” in their divisions with the U.S. as national security crises grow, says Smith, who also formerly served as principal director for European and NATO policy for former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Obama’s working relationship with Merkel may be his best with a European leader except perhaps British Prime Minister David Cameron, she says.
“[Obama and Merkel] respect each other. That’s probably what saw them through this crisis with Snowden,” Smith says.
But that rapport will be tested on Monday as the two leaders discuss whether to arm Ukraine’s military. Obama has previously opposed sending weapons to Ukraine but his nominee for secretary of defense, Ashton Carter, said he favored sending weapons to Ukrainian forces during his recent confirmation hearings in Congress. A bipartisan group of 12 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee also voiced support for weapons shipments to Ukraine’s government forces.
“Defensive lethal assistance would not allow the Ukrainian military to defeat the Russian military in full-fledged war, but it will raise risks and costs Russia will incur to continue its offensive,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said Thursday.
The German chancellor has opposed arming Ukraine out of concern that weapons would only escalate confrontation with Putin, who has steadfastly denied arming the rebels. The disagreement with the U.S. has surprised many senior leaders in Europe, as did Merkel’s Moscow trip, made with French President Francois Hollande, to discuss the peace plan they proposed in Kiev on Thursday.
“I think it shows, when these two very important politicians here in Europe go together, it’s a very serious statement. They really want to achieve something,” says Knut Fleckenstein, a German member of the European Parliament’s second biggest bloc, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. He serves on the Committee of Foreign Affairs and the parliament’s EU-Russia cooperation committee.
The policy departure could, however, be the product of some very crafty closed-door statesmanship. The threat of weapons deliveries may provide just the pressure Merkel and Hollande need to push their agenda with the Russian leader, Fleckenstein adds.
It’s a dangerous bluff.
“These weapon deliveries will give Mr. Putin wonderful arguments for his propaganda,” he says. “To deliver weapons in this area, I think, makes it more possible from this conflict will start a real war in this area, and nobody knows where it really ends.”
Germany’s support is crucial not only because it is an economic powerhouse of the European Union, but because other European nations are less likely to expand sanctions against Russia’s businesses, banks and powerful supporters of Putin, says Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Security concerns to be addressed at the Monday meeting will also include radical Islamic terrorism in Europe and the threat posed by the Islamic State group, which uniquely affects Germany because of its large Muslim population. Germany has the largest Muslim population of all European Union nations, which in 2010 amounted to 4.8 million, or 5 percent of its country, according to the Pew Research Center. More than 58 million Muslims will reside in Europe by 2030, equal to 8 percent of its total population, the study shows.
While Obama and Merkel address areas of disagreement, they will almost certainly spend some time discussing areas in which they have mutual interests. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a deal between the U.S. and Europe, may not be completed during the Obama administration, but the two leaders consider it crucial to future trade and investment. Both want to keep moving smoothly, Kirkegaard says.
“The two leaders at this point are not going to get into the details of the horse trading issues, the specific issues of the TTIP. They will stick to platitudes about how important it is,” he says.
The talks also come as the Eurozone economy leaders are pressuring the newly elected government of Greece to back down from promises of renewing welfare and benefits to its workers by rolling back internal spending cuts. Greece’s government has been in debt for years during the recession and relies on aid from European nations like Germany to pay its bills.
The European Central Bank on Thursday decided to stop funding Greece’s banks in an effort to pressure them to maintain a frugal budget. Greece is expected to agree to a compromise during a meeting with the central bank on Wednesday. If it refuses that could bankrupt its economy and force it to withdraw from the euro currency, so “the Greek issue is going to play into the discussion,” between Obama and Merkel, Funk says.
But without doubt the talks will be dominated by the next moves in Ukraine. And, at the end of the day, they are more likely to agree than to disagree, Smith says.
“They are incredibly pragmatic and up front and share the same world view on a lot of things,” she says. “They agree that diplomacy should always come before the use of military force.”