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Merkel, Obama ponder Ukraine and security

Richard Walker, WashingtonFebruary 8, 2015

As Chancellor Merkel visits President Obama on Monday, the US sees Europe as a continent in crisis. Two experts take on the roles of Germany and the US to tease out the countries' views on key international issues.

G20-Gipfel in Brisbane Barack Obama Angela Merkel 15.11.2014
Image: Patrick Hamilton/G20 Australia via Getty Images

Ahead of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's talks with US President Barack Obama on Monday, Bruce Stokes, director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project, and Annette Heuser, executive director of the Washington, DC, office of the Bertelsmann Foundation, sat down with DW to discuss the issues that will be on the leaders' agenda.

Crisis 1: Ukraine and Europe's defense

Bruce Stokes: Economic sanctions have not been sufficient to get the Russians to stop supporting the rebels in Ukraine. We need to consider doing more, and we look to Europe to do more, and Germany in particular to support that.

Annette Heuser: I can't take this any more, this constant demand that we Europeans have to do more. Let's face it, if there is a transatlantic success story, it's the sanctions. Both sides came together quite quickly to impose sanctions. And they already have a very dire effect on the Russian economy. Berlin is skeptical about providing military assistance to Ukraine because it believes there is only a diplomatic option here that can solve the conflict - and that military assistance will further escalate the conflict.

Stokes: There's certainly a perception among American officials that Chancellor Merkel is a bulwark in terms of German attitudes towards Putin and Russia. She's tough, she's fed up with Putin. But we also hear a great deal privately from our German friends in the business community that "you Americans don't understand Russia the way we do, we need some kind of accommodation, we need to live with the Russians." And frankly here in the US, many of us hear that as appeasement. Will Chancellor Merkel be able to maintain her tough line?

Heuser: There is no doubt that Merkel is under enormous pressure from the German corporate sector because they have enormous investments in Russia. But it would be the same if all of a sudden the US were confronted with a similar situation with a neighbor where you have to cut the economic ties.

Bruce Stokes, Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project
Bruce stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes ProjectImage: DW/R. Walker

Stokes: There was an infamous poll done last summer where the Germans were asked, do you want to be closer to Russia, closer to the United States or some place in the middle? And basically the German public said, "We'd like to be some place in the middle." Frankly, many Americans heard that and said, "After all we did for Germany in the Cold War, after the support for unification, they want to be somewhere between us and Russian and not on our side?"

Heuser: Germany has a strong desire to have a peaceful place in Europe, and Russia is part of Europe. And therefore we still want to work things out with Russia. But I think you can't question that Merkel has the majority of Germans behind her regarding her tough course towards Russia.

Crisis 2: Terrorism and intelligence

Stokes: We are increasingly concerned about terrorism coming to our shores. You face an even greater problem, because you have more transit back and forth between Syria and Iraq and Europe. The Charlie Hebdo experience is just an example of what this can lead to. The reaction to the NSA scandal suggested that Europeans valued their privacy much more than they feared terrorism. But we think now that we were right and the Europeans were wrong.

Heuser: I would disagree. I think the good news is that Europe has renewed its commitment to robust surveillance on the terrorist threats. We have a lot of fighters going between Europe and Syria and Iraq, and Germany has decided that those who are a potential threat have no right to keep their passports any longer. That's a very concrete measure. When it comes to the NSA scandal, obviously this is still a kind of dark cloud over the transatlantic relationship and we have to work on overcoming it.

USA Fahne Brandenburger Tor Berlin
Allegations of spying of strained relations between Germany and the USImage: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Stokes: But there was a sense here of the hypocrisy that the Germans were spying on their own people in a somewhat similar way to how we were spying on people. They were quite happy to receive the information from the US intelligence services when it was appropriate. But once it was exposed, then they were, in the famous words of the movie "Casablanca," shocked"

Heuser: I would say the Germans were rightly outraged when they found out that the NSA was tapping the phone of Chancellor Merkel. Because it translated into "we don't trust you guys in Berlin, we don't trust the Germans." But at the same time I think, the government fell short in communicating to German citizens that besides the scandal there is a reason why we have to keep close ties with the American intelligence services.

Stokes: And we're trying to rebuild that relationship. We have just announced that we will accord the same privacy rights to foreign nationals as we do to American nationals, in terms of what information can be kept, and what has to be discarded.

Griechenland PK Jeroen Dijsselbloem & Gianis Varoufakis 30.01.2015
The election of the leftist Syriza government in has called the future of Greece as a member of the euro zone into questionImage: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Crisis 3: Greece and the euro

Stokes: We think you are squeezing Greece too hard. We would be much better served by a stronger Europe, and a stronger Europe means more growth. Austerity is not going to get you there. Our perception is that Germans treat economics as a morality play, that economic success is a sign of virtue. We think it's a result of ups and downs of the economy, the yin and the yang of the economy. That people need to not only save but spend.

Heuser: It is very frustrating for the German government to be constantly lectured by their American counterparts. Think about Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner at the height of the crisis. We have a similar situation right now where the Americans want to advise us how to deal with the Greek government and tell us that Berlin needs to spend more. I think it would be helpful to accept that we have a different system, a different outlook, a different history and mentality when it comes to dealing with our financial system.

Stokes: Our perception is that people are playing a game of chicken in Europe with Greece - that Germans are talking tough, "Well if you want to leave, we might not want to stand in your way." And it is probably true, that Europe is in a better position to sustain a Greece withdrawal than they were a few years ago. But we don't know what the knock-on consequences would be.

Heuser: We had numerous debates at the height of the crisis about Greece leaving the eurozone, the euro going down the drain. None of this has happened because what I think Americans need to understand is that while the euro is a currency, at the same time it is a political project.

Annette Heuse, Bertelsmann Foundation Washington
Annette Heuser is executive director of the Washington, DC office of the Bertelsmann Foundation.Image: DW/R. Walker

Stokes: At the end of the day, we need you to grow, whether Greece is in or out.

Heuser: Germans are wondering whether the US is still committed to the transatlantic free trade agreement, TTIP.

Stokes: First we have to finish the free trade agreement with Asia. It is further along, and we need to get that done this year. And I would remind you that only 39 percent of Germans support TTIP, while polls in the US show that a larger majority of Americans support it. So the political problems it seems to me are in Germany. We fear that could sink what is arguably the single most important economic transaction between Europe and the United States since the Marshall Plan.

Heuser: We do have a challenge in Germany, where we have a quite negative debate around the agreement. But things are shifting.

Stokes: The problem in the US is that we run into problems with the political calendar. If the deal is not done by the end of this year, Congress can't vote on it until next year. Then we're right in the middle of the US presidential election. And the problem with that scenario: Trade deals begin to smell like a dead fish if they sit on the table too long.

Heuser: We have to keep the momentum.

The big picture

Stokes: President Obama came into office rejecting what he perceived to be the Bush approach to the world. Obama said we need partners to deal with the world's problems. But now there is a certain amount of frustration in the US, particularly because of the inability of Europe to reignite growth - this naval-gazing about Europe's problems rather than leading in the world. It raises real questions about whether Europe can be a partner of the United States.

Heuser: We have the same questions towards the US. Let's face it, a lot of Europeans and in particular Germans are frustrated with Obama. When he was elected, they thought that he would engage much more with us. So far we haven't seen much of that other than lecturing. Europe has matured, economically, financially, and in its foreign and security policy. And it's time for Washington to accept it.