Regardless of who emerges as chancellor and how the ruling coalition is put together after Germany’s September 22 federal election, German officials will be faced with a transatlantic agenda that looks very familiar. While the players in Berlin may be shuffled, and some may be new to the arena of government, the U.S.-German dialogue will carry on, and the parameters of challenges and choices will not change a great deal. What’s more, the primary political players on the German stage do not differ significantly in their approaches to transatlantic issues, and the central importance of relations with the United States is a given for the mainstream parties.
However, that does not always translate into agreement on specific policy choices. There are a number of areas of potential tension in future U.S.-German relations.
For example, many stakeholders on both sides of the Atlantic would like to see negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) initiative move forward. But a left-of-center ruling coalition in Berlin made up of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Greens might generate more friction in some areas, such as genetically modified foods or cultural issues, than the current conservative-liberal coalition of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union and the Free Democratic Party.
Then there is the ongoing fallout from the revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) extensive surveillance program of both American allies and foes. The backlash continues among Germans, who are especially sensitive to these issues given their historical experience with surveillance policies in the former East Germany and during the Nazi era. The whole affair has generated a good deal of public hostility toward Washington.
SPD candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrück suggested that TTIP negotiations should come to a halt so questions about the NSA scandal that are looming large in Germany can be sorted out. Meanwhile, the current chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been trying to argue that the NSA issue is something that needs clarification but should not be used to block transatlantic trade interests. By all accounts, this will be a long-term challenge that both Germany and the United States must confront, regardless of the outcome of the election.
Closer to home, while the familiarity of some cabinet figures will enable the transatlantic dialogue to sustain itself after the German election, there is a trend toward inward-looking political concerns on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States is going through a phase of increasing domestic preoccupation with isolationist tendencies, and that has implications for U.S. foreign policy capacities and perceptions. For their part, Germans are primarily concerned with their own future and with the stability of their European environment.
These twin trends can raise serious questions about mutual expectations when it comes to setting policy priorities. Recent experiences, such as the clash over dealing with Libya or the handling of the euro crisis, illustrate differences over choices.
But Berlin and Washington also realize that there is an enormous web of economic and strategic interdependence that envelops the transatlantic network. The transatlantic relationship has no equal, be it measured in economic, political, or trade terms or simply by the amount of human traffic across the Atlantic every day.
Going forward, German and American leaders will have to forge common responses to serious challenges, some well beyond the transatlantic arena, while maintaining public support at home. A glance at the Middle East, Africa, or other areas of concern reminds Berlin and Washington that they share global responsibilities and the need to respond to them. This is a message that leaders on both sides of the ocean need to convey to their respective voters and to each other.
Consider the status of the euro and the economic outlook in Europe. Germany’s role in these issues is decisive, and the United States has an enormous stake in the stability of the euro and in continued growth in the euro area in terms of its own economic outlook. Merkel has spent the last four years of her tenure steering through the economic storms in Europe. If reelected, she will continue to make that her top priority.
U.S. expectations of German leadership in this arena will be high, but in the past few years, the United States and Germany have clashed. Tensions have surfaced over Berlin’s regulatory policies and its policy priorities in responding to the crises in Europe. Those tensions have also affected Germany’s relations with its European neighbors. The U.S.-German dialogue in this area will at times be difficult, especially in light of divergent perspectives on the role of monetary and fiscal policies and because Germany operates within the complex EU arena, which impacts its choices and their consequences.
Then there is the still-unfolding civil war in Syria and the potential response to the use of chemical weapons there. Any coalition government in Berlin will seek to avoid German military engagement in the region, but the United States will expect German political support should the crisis escalate.
Washington will also seek Berlin’s help when dealing with Moscow. Because Germany’s relations with Russia are the most extensive in Europe, Washington needs Berlin in discussions with Moscow about bringing an end to the conflict in Syria. The United States and Germany will need to coordinate their policies toward Russia, especially given its domestic slide toward autocracy.
And Germany is China’s most important economic partner in Europe. This connection is key to the United States given that relations between Beijing and Washington are defined by competition and interdependence. Germany and the United States will need to discuss a common approach to the emergence of China on the global stage.
Of course, the existence of common interests does not guarantee that Berlin and Washington will find common ground in all areas of shared concern. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany has become a subject of U.S. foreign policy rather than the object it was during the Cold War. Berlin is increasingly finding its own way. It is confronting new choices and adjusting to a changing role in Europe and in the world with the more frequent—but cautious—use of its influence and interests.
However difficult it is to work together on tackling specific agenda items, there is an overlapping consensus that the sum of German-American relations has been more than its parts. For nearly seven decades, the United States and Germany have managed to manage their relations fairly well. That won’t change after Germany’s election.
Jackson Janes is the president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University.