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Merkel and Obama
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

Mending ties?

Gero Schliess, Washington / db
May 1, 2014

NSA wiretaps, the transatlantic trade accord and the crisis in Ukraine: German Chancellor Angela Merkel's US visit is overshadowed by a number of challenging issues.


Over the years, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has addressed Congress and been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on her US visits. This time, however, her visit is overshadowed by crises, and she faces an ally that has become a stranger.

NSA spying and the crisis in Ukraine are exacting issues for both countries. The Ukraine issue in particular has the potential to push Germany and the US further apart, according to Nile Gardiner from the Heritage Foundation think tank: "There's a big divide between Berlin and Washington with regard to how to treat the Russian problem."

Germany and a number of European countries have been pursuing "a policy of appeasement towards Russia and that's largely due to the economic dependence in terms of energy supply," the Europe expert told DW.

Karen Donfried, the new head of the German Marshall Fund transatlantic organization, however, points out that German-US coordination has been very good so far. "Europe has important trade and energy ties with Russia, but even so, they, too, want to put pressure on Russia," the former top advisor on Europe to President Obama says.

Stand united

"It's very important that Putin notices this solidarity." Donfried says.

Karen Donfried
Karen Donfried served as a special asisstant to President ObamaImage: German Marshall Fund, Washington

The Ukraine crisis is at the very top of Angela Merkel's agenda in Washington. The German Chancellor is not only bound to encounter completely different assessments and expectations of Europe and Germany, but also a president who is under considerable domestic pressure to toughen his stance on Russia.

"This meeting is incredibly timely and important," says Heather Conley of the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The two leaders are meeting "at a time when the West's policy toward Russia has come to a dramatic end and a new policy needs to be rebuilt," the think tank's expert on Germany says. "Germany's role in shaping that new policy is going to be critical for its success."

Reluctant Europeans

Recent media reports suggest the Obama administration is dissatisfied with America's European allies. Earlier this week, the Washington Post wrote that "US officials have indicated that they were ready to issue new sanctions last week but decided to wait for the European Union in order to protect a unified front." The New York Times quoted unnamed presidential staff as arguing "that effectively deferring to the 28-member European Union is a recipe for inaction."

That's also a stab at Chancellor Merkel, whom Washington regards as its most important ally in Europe and a leader in harmonizing a joint position on Russia.

"President Obama is going to come under increasing pressure to toughen his stance on Russia," Gardiner predicts. "The US is going to significantly enhance the sanctions against Russia, and the Germans will probably hesitate to do so for a number of reasons: The Ukraine issue has potential to push Germany and the US further apart."

Close cooperation with Germany

Karen Donfried has a completely different view of the German-US relationship, saying it has been strong over the past years, and remains strong today. Donfried admits the NSA spy affair is a difficult chapter, but "the Ukraine crisis, Iran and Syria show how closely we cooperate."

US flag,, superimposed with eye, several human figures
US-German relations are strained by the NSA spy scandalImage: Imago

Obama faces domestic pressure on Russia, while Merkel is under pressure concerning the NSA spy scandal. "It's certainly a priority issue domestically in Germany, but it's not a priority in Washington," Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation concedes. "I don't see the US administration making any concessions on this or bowing to various demands coming from different political parties."

Not obliged

Concrete results are not expected from the meeting, least of all the mutual no-spy pact that Germany has been propagating. It will take time and an intensive dialogue to mend the loss of trust, says Karen Donfried.

Heather Conley hopes the Obama administration will be "more proactive in helping to find those areas where we can address German and European concerns." She expects the White House to announce recommendations and assessments on US data privacy this week. It will, however, only concern the US.

After Ukraine and the NSA scandal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is the third-most important issue on the agenda. The Chancellor is scheduled to hold a speech on the trade talks at the US Chamber of Commerce. According to media reports, the planned speech has annoyed officials close to the president: the chamber is a powerful conservative business lobby and a domestic opponent.

"She's going to offer a robust defense of TTIP," Nile Gardiner says, adding there are a lot of sceptical people in Washington with regard to the agreement. "I think she'll be trying to convince not only the American business community but also members of Congress that it's a good agreement."

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