JUNE 19, 2013
PLAYING IT SAFE IN BERLIN by Annette Heuser The crowd that welcomed Barack Obama to the east side of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate did so with enthusiasm if not with the euphoria that greeted candidate Obama five years ago down the road at the city’s Victory Column. Realism has set in, and the German public has tamped down their expectations of the US president. They may still have been disappointed by today’s performance. In his speech, the president checked all the right boxes: He spoke approvingly of battling climate change, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and AIDS, and the necessity of creating economies that serve people. But Mr Obama missed an opportunity to give Berlin a needed wake-up call to "lean in" for the trans-Atlantic partnership. Only by reading between the lines can one discern the president’s general message that democracies cannot detach themselves from today’s international security obligations. That’s unfortunate since Germany has become in the last several years an unpredictable and inscrutable partner for the US. From its non-engagement in Libya to its hardline course for eurozone austerity, Berlin has increasingly been seen on the other side of the Atlantic as opaque and erratic. A series of misunderstandings and frustrations, large and small, has eroded the mutual enthusiasm and trust that was once the hallmark of the German-American alliance. President Obama’s speech reflected this unfortunate state of affairs. Rather than making history with an iconic message to the German public, he played it safe. He could have delivered his generic comments almost anywhere. The text was boilerplate material for partners and allies; it never found the right tone for an ally that needs reminding of the engagement required for maintaining that essential German-American bond.
That the president made only a passing reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the only current, strategic project that can re-animate the EuropeanAmerican alliance and give it a needed economic boost, is surprising. TTIP has the potential to create significant growth and employment in the US and export-driven Germany. Promoting this concrete and groundbreaking project more forcefully would have sent a powerful message on both sides of the Atlantic. The president chose instead to deliver comforting words that glazed over differences and irritations. He meant well, but he did not challenge Berlin to become the more mature global partner that Washington needs. Germany should not forget its struggles and abdicate its future role because the immediacy of security threats has subsided. The country's unique position in Europe equips it with the tools to punch well above its weight. But Germany has been reluctant to assume a role, commensurate with its influence, even in preserving and maintaining the transAtlantic infrastructure. The lack of enthusiasm for and empathy between the US and Germany has evolved into a chronic affliction that plagues their relationship. President Obama did not take advantage of a rare opportunity to win over Germans and their political elites with a new agenda that could have provided a foundation for re-defining and re-invigorating the trans-Atlantic partnership. Fifty years ago John F. Kennedy inspired Berliners and the world with one sentence. Barack Obama did not inspire with an entire speech.
Annette Heuser is executive director of the Washington, DC-based Bertelsmann Foundation. firstname.lastname@example.org ABOUT THE BERTELSMANN FOUNDATION The Bertelsmann Foundation is a private, non-partisan operating foundation, working to promote and strengthen transAtlantic cooperation. Serving as a platform for open dialogue among key stakeholders, the foundation develops practical policy recommendations on issues central to successful development on both sides of the ocean. ©Copyright 2013, Bertelsmann Foundation. All rights reserved. 1101 New York Avenue, NW, Suite 901 • Washington, DC 20005 USA • Tel: +1.202.384.1980 www.bfna.org