A world of differences plague the U.S.-German relationship, but the tone between President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel couldn’t have been warmer as the two leaders praised their personal friendship and tiptoed around national problems. The two leaders were polite and deferential in a press conference on Tuesday, all smiles and compliments in their tenth meeting since Obama took office.
But the global economic crisis, Europe’s debt crisis, and the Middle East all reveal deep divisions. In particular, there’s the issue of military involvement in Libya, where the two countries have differed. While the U.S. joined Britain and France in encouraging the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution approving air strikes against Libya, Germany joined Russia and China in abstaining from the vote – the only European Union or NATO country to do so.
Instead of a slap on the wrist at the joint press conference, Obama turned the Libya situation on its head, portraying Germany’s noninvolvement as a positive. “Germany’s deployment of additional resources to personnel in Afghanistan has allowed other NATO allies to protect the Libyan people,” he said. Instead, he spoke of a mutual belief that Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi must leave.
“It is our joint will that this NATO mission is successful,” Merkel said, reiterating the German commitment in Afghanistan as a means of justifying a lack of participation in the NATO mission.
On the economic front, the U.S. is eager to leave Germany in the driver’s seat of stewarding the Eurozone recovery from a sovereign debt crisis on its periphery, which Obama has argued is taking its toll on the U.S. recovery. But after Germany took the lead in financing the bailouts of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, there is little appetite left among the German public for pouring more money into those debt-strapped nations. Americans have even less interest in getting involved, and Obama has accordingly demonstrated little willingness to offer monetary assistance.
When a reporter asked him about Germany’s ability to finance a second bailout, he seemed to encourage German leadership ever so gently. “I am confident that Germany’s leadership, along with other key actors in Europe, will help us arrive at a path for Greece to return to growth, for this debt to become more manageable, but it is going to require some patience and some time,” Obama said. Instead of directly calling for another bailout, he instead urged a “sensible resolution” of the problem.
He also offered a promise to “cooperate fully” with Germany and suggested that the U.S. may offer the use of International Monetary Fund money. Merkel, for her part, pledged solidarity with European countries, but also nudged them to take steps to remain competitive in a changing world.
Although Merkel has pushed Germany to write debt and deficit reductions into law, she declined to comment on the rising U.S. debt in response to a question from a reporter. “I think each and every one ought to deal with his or her own problems,” she said, signaling a broader understanding between the two leaders that may account for their positive relationship.
The American press pushed Obama to discuss last Friday’s disappointing job numbers, which he previously danced around in his remarks at a Chrysler plant that day. “I’m not concerned about a double-dip recession,” Obama said of the recent economic figures. “We don’t yet know whether this is a one-month episode, or a longer trend.” He blamed various “headwinds” the U.S. faces, including high gas prices.
He did speak more broadly about the global economy, outlining the importance of creating an environment for competitiveness and a sound business environment – remarks that will surely draw criticism from Republicans, who see Obama as impeding those very things. But Obama still blames President Bush for landing the U.S. in such economic trouble.
“The world economy took a severe blow two and a half years ago. And in part that was because of a whole set of policy decisions that had been made and challenges that had been unaddressed over the course of the previous decade. And recovering from that kind of body blow takes time,” he said. “Recovery is going to be uneven. And there are going to be times where we are making progress, but people are still skittish and nervous, and the markets get skittish and nervous. And so they pull back because they're still thinking about the traumas of just two and a half years ago.”
The recent resignation of former International Monetary Fund Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn also has the potential to drive a wedge between the two countries and likely came up during talks, though the two leaders did not mention future leadership of the institution in their remarks. Many in Europe favor French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde to take the lead spot, but the U.S. has declined to endorse her for the seat. They see the potential for a developing country to step into the spotlight; Europe would be reluctant to cede control of the IMF unless the U.S. similarly stepped down from its leadership role in the World Bank.
And finally, there’s nuclear power, another issue on which Obama and Merkel remained mum in their press conference. In the wake of the Japanese disaster that crippled a nuclear power plant and forced the evacuation of tens of thousands from the surrounding area, Obama urged a level-headed response and trotted out U.S. nuclear regulators to assure the American public that its own nuclear power plants were well-equipped to handle a disaster; but across the Atlantic, Merkel went in the other direction. She put a bill before the Cabinet to shutter all nuclear power plants by 2022 in response to the Japanese disaster.
Still, the two leaders exhibit a close and warm friendship in public. Obama said at the press conference that they have fun together. Last year, Obama selected Merkel to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Although she wasn’t able to attend the February ceremony for recipients, he will give her the medal on Tuesday night.