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Disappointed love

Volker DepkatJune 20, 2013

US President Barack Obama came, saw - but did he conquer? As Volker Depkat writes, US-German ties have developed, changed and matured over the years. What they most definitely are not is 'normal.'

U.S. President Barack Obama chats with German Chancellor Angela Merkel next to Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit (L) after their speeches at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, June 19, 2013. U.S. President Barack Obama will unveil plans for a sharp reduction in nuclear warheads in a landmark speech at the Brandenburg Gate on Wednesday that comes 50 years after John F. Kennedy declared "Ich bin ein Berliner" in a defiant Cold War address. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS)
Image: Reuters

Long gone are the days of the Cold War, lost is the world it created. The symbolic importance of Berlin as the "frontline city of the Cold War," as the "showcase of the West" in a sea of communism, as the place, where American presidents needed to go to if they wanted to conjure up the transatlantic community of values has disappeared. How glamorous they were, the presidential visits to Cold War Berlin, and how overloaded with symbolism.

It's been 50 years since John F. Kennedy set the standard by confessing on the balcony of the Schöneberg town hall that he was a Berliner and proud of it. Other US presidents followed in his footsteps. In 1987 President Ronald Reagan challenged Mr. Gorbachev, the head of the Soviet government, to tear down the Berlin wall, and 19 years ago President Bill Clinton declared Berlin to be free at last.

But things have changed and American presidential visits to the German capital have lost a lot of their old glamour. President Obama was not too eager to come to Berlin in the first place. He took his time, and had it not been for German Chancellor Angela Merkel's urgent plea, who knows whether he would have found his way back to Berlin at all after his sensational speech as presidential candidate at Berlin's Siegessäule in 2008.

The power of symbolism

Thursday's impressive speech at the Brandenburg Gate demonstrated compellingly that Berlin still has a lot of symbolic power, and that the "spirit of Berlin" forged by the exigencies of the Cold War can still have a meaning in the world of the 21st century. President Obama achieved nothing more and nothing less than a radical re-interpretation of Berlin as the symbol for the relentless struggle to make the world a better place, a world based on peace, liberty and justice, a world based on the very same values that the United States and Germany have been sharing since 1945.

With his speech, Obama redefined the meaning of German-American relations in the contexts of the globalized, entangled and interdependent world of today, finally moving the whole symbolism connected to Berlin out of the shadows of the Cold War.

Looking at the Brandenburg Gate from the East, Obama raised the Cold War "spirit of Berlin," only to take it to the future. In the second half of the 20th century, Germany and the United States had fought together for freedom, democracy, justice and prosperity against communism. This common past should now carry their future cooperation to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

Justice abroad - and back home

By focusing on justice so strongly, the American President was also addressing his fellow countrymen, and maybe especially so. More outspokenly than ever before he turned his back on the neoliberal doctrine of supply-side economics, deregulation and market radicalism that is still hegemonic in the United States. In Berlin, Obama came out in favor of balancing individual liberty with social justice, civil rights with security, and he clearly advocated an active state to solve the problems of climate change and environmental destruction, to push for the reduction of nuclear arsenals, to protect minorities and to bring about global economic justice. It may well be that we witnessed President Obama officially declaring the neoliberal "Age of Reaganism" to be over.

Volker Depkat, Experte für US-Europäische Beziehungen von der Uni Regensburg.
Volker DepkatImage: Volker Depkat

However, this grandiose attempt to re-define the essence and aim of the German-American friendship for the 21st century should not blind us to fact that the relationship between Germany and the United States has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. To be sure, both countries are engaged in a stable relationship carried by trust and friendship. They know that they can rely on each other, they are cooperating in many fields, their economic and cultural entanglement is currently deeper than ever before.

Happily ever after?

Germany and the United States is like an old marriage where both partners know each other very well, respect each other, share key values and openly address their differences. The latter have been growing since the end of the Cold War and the list is long - the war in Iraq, Guantanamo, drone attacks, the eurozone crisis, the National Security Agency's internet espionage, the problem of free trade. Yet, however long this list of problems may be, both sides are eager to moderate their differences on behalf of their continued and mutually beneficial cooperation. Germany and the United States have grown apart since 1990 but they cannot do without each other.

Unified Germany emancipated itself rather quickly from its former protecting power, pursued its own interests, worked to push European integration, distanced itself from President George W. Bush and his war against Iraq, stands dumbfounded when it comes to Guantanamo.

Go your own way

The United States also went its own ways after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. They withdrew troops and funds from Germany, concentrated their efforts on the newly emerging democracies in Eastern Europe, leaned on Asia and the Pacific stronger than before, and became entangled in two costly wars in the Middle East. All the while, the generation of World War II that had breathed life into the special relationship between Germany and the United States was dying out. Living memory passed into oblivion; experienced history turned into abstract book-learning.

All in all, it is safe to say that while Germany has lost importance for the United States over the last 25 years or so, the United States continues to loom large in Germany's emotional household. From its inception, the United States has served Germans well as a projection surface for their own wishes, hopes and yearnings revolving around freedom, self-determination, prosperity and democracy.

To this very day, many Germans are in love with the United States. In 2008, a vast majority of Germans hailed the presidential candidate Barack Obama as a beacon of hope, without anybody asking what the first black contender for the American presidency actually stood for politically. After the great alienation under President George W. Bush, Obama promised to give Germans "their" America back, an America that was liberal, tolerant, pluralistic. During the last presidential elections in November 2012, more than 90 percent of Germans would have voted for Obama.

Far from normal

In the run-up to President Obama's visit to Berlin there was a lot of talk about a rather diffuse but growing disappointment with the man and his presidency. He was no messiah, no shining light anymore, many commentators said. Well, this is only good because the hopes and expectations projected onto Barack Obama - and that he had willingly projected onto himself - were as unrealistic as can be.

That is why the current disillusionment with President Obama follows a specific dynamic that largely grows from disappointed love. Somehow the United States has never managed to live up to the great hopes and expectations that Germans linked to it, which, of course, is primarily a problem of the Germans, not of the United States. It may well be that President Obama's reference to the "spirit of Berlin," and his commitment to "peace with justice" have managed to turn the tide. Regardless of how things develop, one thing is certain: German-American relations are far from becoming "normal."

Volker Depkat is Professor of American Studies at the University of Regensburg, Bavaria.