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Interview: Martin Kuebler
February 28, 2014

Ukraine dominated the German foreign minister's visit to Washington, with the US-German partnership also a main focus. Former Obama adviser Jeremy Shapiro analyzes current transatlantic relations in a DW interview.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Washington with John Kerry Photo: REUTERS/Gary Cameron
Image: Reuters

As part of his current trip to Washington, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave a speech on Friday (28.02.2014) at the Brookings Institution on transatlantic relations, in which he outlined ways for Europe and the US to continue to develop their strategic partnership, and emphasized that in the era of "big data," Western cohesion was more critical than ever.

Prior to the speech, DW spoke to the Brookings Institution's Jeremy Shapiro, a former advisor to US President Barack Obama, about the focus of Steinmeier's trip to the United States.

DW: German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier met with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Thursday (27.02.2014) to discuss ways to "deepen and broaden [the] existing partnership" between the US and Germany. How do you see that relationship developing with the new German government?

Jeremy Shapiro: Overall, there's going to be continuity. German policies don't change very quickly under any circumstances, and this is not, precisely speaking, a new German government. Obviously, the main party is still the same, and particularly when it comes to transatlantic relations, Germany's policies are, frankly speaking, a model of continuity, for better and for worse.

There are a couple of things right now in the German-American relationship which might augur a little bit of change in what is, broadly speaking, a fairly solid and stable relationship. The first, of course, is the Snowden affair, and it's still unclear how that will really play out. It's clearly a big deal, and a big deal for the German people, and I think that the German government is going to continue to press that issue.

The other issue is this new German push that started from [President Joachim] Gauck's speech, that seems to have been followed up by [Chancellor Angela] Merkel and Steinmeier, to talk about stepping up Germany's role in terms of global responsibility. It's not yet clear what that really means, but it's a change in tone and has been broadly welcomed from the standpoint of the United States.

What has been the reaction to Gauck's speech?

Since it's been a US goal for, roughly speaking, a generation to get Germany more involved outside of its narrow interests, [the comments] are obviously something that have been very, very welcome here. But I would say that the reaction has also been cautious, because we don't really know what that means.

But from a US standpoint, this is a German domestic issue. These German leaders are coming here and making foreign policy speeches and trying to change German foreign policy, but they're really talking to their public more than to us. It's helpful for them to do this in the United States, in the company of the US Secretary of State, and to demonstrate that this is something that the world welcomes, or at least that their partners welcome. They know that the world isn't scared of Germany any more, and this sort of stronger sense of responsibility is welcomed by all of Germany's partners, frankly. But it's something that's obviously very difficult for Germany domestically, and I think that's where the issue really needs to be sorted. The main effort is with the German public, and not with Germany's foreign partners.

The other issue dominating Steinmeier's talks in Washington is the situation in Ukraine. How has the involvement of Europe and Germany in the developments there been perceived in the US?

There is often an impression here that Europe is slow off the mark in these types of crises, and is not very effective at playing the sort of hardball geopolitics that are necessary in Ukraine. And that's been the narrative of the European and German reaction to Ukraine for some weeks.

What tends to happen in these crises is that the EU tends to get hamstrung. When the crisis mounts to a certain point, the big and/or interested countries step forward in a sort of an ad hoc "coalition of the willing" - if you don't mind me using that term - and then they can be quite effective. There was a general sense that Europe has done that in the past week or two, and that Germany was an important part of that effort.

On Friday (28.02.2014), Steinmeier is speaking at the Brookings Institution on the importance of transatlantic ties between Germany and the US and what needs to be done to maintain them. Is this special relationship in danger of deteriorating?

One of the things that German leaders are quite worried about is that a new generation of young people on both sides of the Atlantic, but especially in Germany, don't really have a sense of the emotional ties of the transatlantic relationship. They don't really understand the role that the relationship has played in German history and continues to play in terms of German security. There's a worry that that relationship will fray over time if there's not attention to educating and informing a new generation about that history and the purpose of the transatlantic relationship.

How has the fallout from the NSA surveillance scandal been different from past disagreements?

If you look back at previous upsets in the US-German, the US-European relationship - and of course there have been many - there's a sense of ballast there, a sense that the rupture can't get too bad because the leaders on both sides understand just how important the relationship is and how important it is to work out these differences.

When you take the Snowden affair, and particularly when German leaders look at the German public's reaction to that, I think they worry that it's going to be difficult to maintain that ballast. And so, with this problem, or the next one or the one after that, it will be harder to hold together what's fundamental about the relationship, because these upsets will certainly continue to happen. They're in the nature of things, and not actually an indication of a deteriorating relationship. An indication of a deteriorating relationship is how you react to it.

Jeremy Shapiro is a visiting fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. Previously, he was a US policy adviser in the administration of President Barack Obama for Europe, Eurasia, North Africa and the Levant.

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