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Supper, or summit?

June 7, 2011

The German chancellor's trip to Washington comes at a time when Berlin's foreign policy is struggling for wider acceptance. Diplomatic ties between the two nations have lacked dynamism for some time now.

Obama and Merkel walking together in Dresden
Since taking office, Obama has been to Dresden, but not BerlinImage: AP

Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Washington on Monday evening for a visit aimed at emphasizing close relations between Germany and the US.

The chancellor dined with President Barack Obama at a gourmet restaurant in Washington - a personal meeting ahead of a official events planned for Tuesday.

Obama was due to present Merkel with the highest civilian award in the US - the Presidential Medal of Freedom - in a state dinner at the White House on Tuesday evening.

When the five-pointed white star surrounded by golden American Eagles is draped around the German chancellor's neck, it will mark the high point of a ceremonial state dinner held in her honor. Merkel will be joined at the dinner by her husband, Joachim Sauer, and five cabinet ministers.

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is awarded to those who have made an "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors," the White House said.

Special treatment

The value of receiving such an award is not lost on the chancellor, according to German officials. Her office observed that, in terms of diplomatic protocol, her visit to the US is being treated like a visit from a head of state - although Germany's head of state is its president, not its chancellor.

Military honors, a gun salute, and a state dinner with 250 invited guests in the White House Rose Garden: All these things signal the kind of attention that German diplomats have been longing for, especially recently.

Presidential medal of freedom
Merkel is said to appreciate the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Germany annoyed the US and many others in the international community with a surprising abstention when the UN Security Council voted to establish a no-fly zone over Libya. Great Britain and France made a positive impression on the US with their decisive action, while hesitant Germany was sent off to the sidelines of international diplomacy. At the same time, the US praised German suggestions for solving the Transnistrian conflict.

Prior to the controversial Libya vote, the relationship between Berlin and Washington was a solid one, but it lacked dynamism. Two and a half years after he took office, Obama still hasn't managed to visit Berlin.

Frustrated, the German government has not failed to notice that his European trips always manage to evade their capital. And any goodwill Obama accrued on his visits to Dresden and Baden-Baden has been used up by now. So it stands to reason that during her visit to Washington, the chancellor will invite Barack Obama to Berlin, and the president should take up the invitation in the not-too-distant future.

Things to talk about

Much more important for Merkel than the flattering protocol is the fact that Obama will take a lot of time over two days to hold talks with the chancellor. After all, the two have an awful lot to talk about. There is the situation in the Arab world, in Afghanistan, and in the Middle East. Also on the agenda: the euro crisis, energy policy, and economic cooperation between the US and Europe.

With five cabinet ministers accompanying Merkel to the US in order to cover the wide spectrum of topics, some in the chancellor's office say it makes the visit almost more like a summit. The US will send Vice President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other ministers to the meetings.

But there is one perennial topic that the Germans are likely to play down this time, for obvious reasons. Talks of Germany gaining a seat on the UN Security Council will be at the bottom of the agenda, if at all.

Author: Nina Werkhäuser, Richard Connor (jen)
Editor: Kristin Zeier

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