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The United States, Germany, and beyond

International | President Obama's upcoming meetings in Europe will be primarily about U.S.-German relations

Three major meetings will take place in Europe over the next nine days: a meeting of the G-20, a NATO summit, and a meeting of the European Union with U.S. President Barack Obama. The week will define the relationship between the United States and Europe and reveal some intra-European relationships. If not a defining moment, the week will certainly be a critical moment in dealing with economic, political, and military questions. To be more precise, the meeting will be about U.S.-German relations. Not only is Germany the engine of continental Europe, its policies diverge the most sharply from those of the United States. In some ways, U.S.-German relations have been the core of the U.S.-European relationship, so this marathon of summits will focus on the United States and Germany.

Although the meetings deal with a range of issues-the economy and Afghanistan chief among them-the core question on the table will be the relationship between Europe and the United States following the departure of George W. Bush and the arrival of Barack Obama. This is not a trivial question. The European Union and the United States together account for more than half of global gross domestic product. How the two interact and cooperate is thus a matter of global significance. Of particular importance will be the U.S. relationship with Germany, since the German economy drives the Continental dynamic. This will be the first significant opportunity to measure the state of that relationship along the entire range of issues requiring cooperation.

Relations under Bush between the United States and the two major European countries, Germany and France, were unpleasant to say the least. There was tremendous enthusiasm throughout most of Europe surrounding Obama's election. Obama ran a campaign partly based on the assertion that one of Bush's greatest mistakes was his failure to align the United States more closely with its European allies, and he said he would change the dynamic of that relationship.

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There is no question that Obama and the major European powers want to have a closer relationship. But there is a serious question about expectations. From the European point of view, the problem with Bush was that he did not consult them enough and demanded too much from them. They are looking forward to a relationship with Obama that contains more consultation and fewer demands. But while Obama wants more consultation with the Europeans, this does not mean he will demand less. In fact, one of his campaign themes was that with greater consultation with Europe, the Europeans would be prepared to provide more assistance to the United States. Europe and Obama loved each other, but for very different reasons. The Europeans thought that the United States under Obama would ask less, while Obama thought the Europeans would give more.

The G-20 and divergent economic expectations

Begin with the G-20 summit of 20 of the world's largest economies, which, along with the Americans and Europeans, include the Russians, Chinese, and Japanese. The issue is, of course, the handling of the international financial crisis. In contrast to the G-20 meetings held in November 2008, the economic situation has clarified itself substantially-itself an improvement-and there are the first faint signs in the United States of what might be the beginning of recovery. There is still tremendous economic pain, but not nearly the panic seen in October.

There is, however, still discord. The most important disagreement is between the United States and United Kingdom on one side and France and Germany on the other. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have selected a strategy that calls for strong economic stimulus at home. The Anglo-American side wants Europe to match it (though the United Kingdom has begun tempering its demands). It fears that the heavily export-oriented Germans in particular will use the demand created by U.S. and British stimulus on their economies to surge German exports into these countries as demand rises. Germany and France would thus get the benefit of the stimulus without footing the bill, enjoying a free ride as the United States builds domestic debt. We must focus here on Germany and the United States because Germany is the center of gravity of the European economy just as the United States is of the Anglo-American bloc. Others are involved, but in the end this comes down to a U.S.-German showdown.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that Germany could not afford the kind of stimulus promoted by the Anglo-Americans because German demographic problems are such that the proposed stimulus would impose long-term debt on a shrinking population, an untenable situation. Germany and France's position makes perfect sense, whether it is viewed as Merkel has framed it, or more cynically, as Germany taking advantage of actions Obama already has taken. Either way, the fact remains that German and U.S. national interest are not at all the same. As Merkel put it in an interview with The New York Times, "International policy is, for all the friendship and commonality, always also about representing the interests of one's own country."

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