Transatlantic relations with Obama: renewed but not reinvented

Institute for European Politics

The new president-elect of the United States of America, Barack Obama, was also the favourite candidate of the majority of Germans. In fact, the Financial Times Deutschland, in cooperation with the opinion research institute Forsa, found out that Obama would win three quarters of all votes if the Germans were his electorate.[1] Thus, support for his agenda is widespread but also fuelled by high expectations.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, from the Christian Democratic Party (CDU), offered close cooperation to the newly elected American President. In a phone call to Obama, she pointed in particular to “the challenges that the international community is facing”, such as the Iranian nuclear programme, the stabilisation of Afghanistan, the climate change and the financial crisis.[2] In reaction to Obama’s presidential speech, Merkel expressed that she “anticipates more multilateralism from now on.” However, the expectations on the new President are extremely high and one should not forget that he is ‘only a human’ too.[3]
Her party colleague and spokesperson for foreign policy affairs of the faction in the German Bundestag, Eckart von Klaeden, underlined the points she mentioned but also warned that the “times of excuses from Europe” have ended with Obama. This means that if Europe is calling for more consultation from the American side in international affairs, it should be prepared to “act effectively”. From a German perspective, this refers especially to the commitment in Afghanistan. While von Klaeden does not think that Obama’s first action in office will be to call for more German troops to the war zone, he stresses the importance of combining military and civil operations.[4] Also, Ruprecht Polenz, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee and member of the CDU, supports this view: One should not only concentrate on the military aspect of the engagement in Afghanistan. Instead, he says, it is important to stabilise the country and the region. This includes civil reconstruction efforts but also political dialogue with the neighbours, such as Pakistan.[5] Indirectly, this could be seen as a concession to Obama.
However, to make this ‘effective multilateralism’ work, von Klaeden argues that neither the USA can attempt to undertake strategic international operations on their own, nor can Europe decline its responsibilities. Especially in regions of the world where Europe’s prestige is better than that of the USA, like in the East or Middle East, chances for common success are higher. Moreover, the EU has built up extensive resources and expertise in the field of civil crisis management and reconstruction, which can serve as an important attribute to achieve the above.[6] Nonetheless, the outstanding commitment of the USA in the Middle East will not cease with the new President. This is why Polenz called on Obama to put the conflict on top of his priority list.[7] Moreover, Polenz is convinced that the transatlantic relationship will experience a “return of diplomacy” with Obama, who is expected to accommodate his allies more than his predecessor. Yet, nobody will ask for permission from Europe. There will rather be a common conclusion from the analysis of a problem, which then also demands common action. This will have consequences for Germany and Europe. In conclusion, his style of policy will be more demanding.[8]
Just on the day of Obama’s inauguration, the CDU/CSU faction on the German Bundestag published a strategic paper called “For a closer transatlantic partnership”.[9] In this paper, they highlight again the priorities of their party and invited Obama to explore new ways in the economic, environmental, security, and foreign policy together with Europe. The paper explicitly encourages the new American administration to join the Kyoto Protocol and negotiate further steps.[10] Additionally, the CDU/CSU faction stressed the importance of NATO as central instrument of the transatlantic security and defence policy. A new concept is needed to adapt this alliance to the global challenges, which are no longer geographically confined. This is also seen as a task for the EU.[11]
The open letter from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to President Obama, which was published in Der Spiegel magazine on 12 January 2009, can partly be read as a statement as candidate for chancellorship of his Social Democratic Party (SPD).[12] Nonetheless, this letter addresses a number of issues that can generally be seen as top priorities for a future transatlantic relationship from a German government perspective. The actual ranking of these priorities might however differ, depending on who is articulating them.
Thus, Steinmeier framed his priorities in three broad categories: 1) ‘Working together in conflict regions’; 2) ‘Working towards security in both East and West’; and 3) ‘For a global community of shared responsibility’. In the following sub-themes he welcomes Obama’s announcement to close the prison camps in Guantanamo and pleads for alternative solutions in the fight against terrorism. Rather than military force, it would be more effective to support economic development and create ‘life-perspectives to help people find their way out of poverty’. The Middle East, Iran, Iraq and especially Afghanistan, serve as examples in this point. Reading between the lines, it seems obvious that Steinmeier does not want to upset Obama by refusing additional commitment in any of these conflict zones. On the other hand, he also does not want to be associated with support for these wars, since they are highly unpopular with the German electorate.[13]
For the second category, Steinmeier points at the need to re-think the role and mission of NATO, but also stresses the responsibility of the USA and Russia to help countering the proliferation of nuclear weapons. With regards to the third category, he recalled the world financial summit in Washington as a new start to integrate “new powers” into a global system of responsibility, which expands beyond financial issues. Climate protection and energy security were mentioned as additional key topics in this regard.[14]
Notwithstanding the Steinmeier’s position, Hans-Ulrich Klose from the SPD faction in the German Bundestag openly voices his belief, according to which Germany should take over the Quick Reaction Force and “make it strong enough so that it can be deployed in Afghanistan – also in the South”. Klose is well known for his dissenting views and as an America-friendly tansatlanticists.[15] Karsten Voigt (also SPD), coordinator for German-American cooperation in the Foreign Ministry, warned the Europeans already during the campaigns of Obama and McCain that no matter who will win the elections, and despite the acknowledged relevance of multilateral cooperation from both sides, multilateralism will never have the same importance for the USA as for Germany.[16] This can only be understood under the “constitutional political tradition” of the United States, its “world power status”, and its “political culture”.[17]
Nonetheless, Voigt sees great potential for transatlantic cooperation, but Europe will have to play its part. Themes that he mentions as being vital and maybe most sensitive for this partnership include the fight against terrorism, realisation of a peace order in the Middle East, the geo-political and economic challenges through emerging powers, and the conflicts in Afghanistan, the Balkan region, Africa and Asia. The current financial crisis also makes it indispensable to think about a new transatlantic economic partnership. Protectionist measures as often advocated by the Democrats would harm Germany as an exporting nation especially. For the EU-American relationship, Voigt identifies two major tasks: First of all, it is necessary to find a common stance on measures to meet the climate change and to ensure energy security. Secondly, and this at least for Europe is somehow connected to the latter point, both have to come to terms with Russia. Being an essential political and economic partner, and also a direct neighbour for Europe, America should not attempt to make the development of transatlantic cooperation depending on Europe’s relationship with Russia.[18]
Guido Westerwelle, leader of the Liberal Party (FDP), mentioned “nuclear disarmament” as major point when sketching his vision for a new German foreign policy in view of the changes in America. In doing so, he took reference to a joint declaration of four outstanding German “elder statesman”[19] who pleaded for “a world without nuclear threats”. This in turn was a reaction to an appeal issued by four elder statesmen from the USA in 2007, who also called for a “world free of atomic weapons”.[20]
Werner Hoyer, spokesperson for foreign affairs of the FDP faction in the German Bundestag, formulated the international challenges ahead as to “overcome a giant crisis of trust”, which does not stop at the financial markets and the economic policies. Rather it has to reconsider the “fundamental values and principles of political action that once made the USA strong and were the basis for its international attractiveness”.[21] In this, Hoyer sees a chance for Europe, together with the USA, to re-define “the West”, which includes a clear hint at America’s isolated standing on Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Furthermore, he cites the financial crisis as a topic that needs to be tackled – together with the emerging economies of the South and East. The G20 Summit in Washington thus poses a promising starting point. Finally, he puts the relevance and future of NATO on the discussion table, too. Hoyer expects closer cooperation from the new US government with the other NATO members, and interprets the announcement of the US-Foreign Ministry to push no longer for Georgia’s hasty admission to the Membership Action Plan as a positive sign “bearing Obama’s handwriting”.[22]

The leaders of the Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen), Claudia Roth and Reinhard Bütikofer, explained that their priority is a transatlantic initiative in the area of climate and energy policy.[23] Whereas Rainder Steenblock (member of the German Bundestag for the Greens) in his position as OSCE election observer noted that the social climate in Germany might change when the new US-government is going to pursue different political aims. This will also have an effect on Germany’s readiness to develop a common strategy for Afghanistan together with the US, which eventually will soften Germany’s resistance to any additional deployment of troops in Afghanistan. However, this needs the respective preconditions.[24] Helmut Scholz, member of the Leftist Party (Die Linke) executive committee, merely asks Obama to stick to his promises.[25]

One of the first actions in office of the new President was to undertake steps to close the Guantanamo prison camps and to halt the military trials, as he promised. While the move as such was welcomed by all political parties, it soon evolved into to discussion about Germany’s obligation to accept ex-prisoners. Wolfgang Schäubele, CDU Minister for the Interior, sees the “humanitarian responsibility” to care for an “acceptable future of the prisoners” with the US government and is not of the opinion that Germany generally should host any of them. Foreign Minister Steinmeier, also in his role as presidential candidate for the SPD, already offered that Germany could think about such a step.[26] The last word has not been spoken and the issue will remain part of the ongoing debate.
But not only politicians are placing great hopes on the new president-elect. Also, civil society groups are hoping that Obama will set positive trends nationally but also on the international scale. Michael Sommer, Chief of the Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB), for example, is talking about a “good sign for employees” as they might enjoy better social rights from now on. And Jürgen Thurmann, President of the Industrial Union, claims stronger ties between the European and American economy to formulate and enforce joint answers to the global challenges.[27] Environmental groups in Germany are placing high expectations on the new president as well. The green group BUND postulates that the US “like all other industrialized countries” has to “move to a sustainable economic model”. And the environmental group NABU is hopeful that “an Obama administration would have a fundamentally different approach to climate protection than outgoing US President Bush”.[28]
However, German researchers who analyse the prospects of a new transatlantic relationship are sceptical about the real impact that the new President Obama will and can have. Similar to Karsten Voigt, Stefan Fröhlich from the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, stresses America’s different approach to the concept of multilateralism. While he does think that there will be more transatlantic cooperation, he assumes that it will be more “instrumental”.[29] Meaning that Washington will decide from case to case whether and how it will consult with partners. Fröhlich also suggests, that those partners do not always have to be European. Moreover, international cooperation in the understanding of US politicians has a strong connotation of “burden sharing”. It can be expected that Obama is going to try to rebuild the image of America as the “friendly hegemon”. Yet, this also implies that allies are needed to share the unpleasant tasks. These assumptions are underlined by Obama’s promise to double American foreign aid on the one hand, and his announcement to increase the defence budget and the number of military troops.[30] Moreover, Fröhlich warns that high expectations are likely to be disappointed. Reading the signs of Obama’s first political steps carefully, reveals that transatlantic relations are not necessarily on top of his list. In the end, “it was the economy that won the campaign” and not his policy on Iraq. All together, Europe should expect a “pragmatic” approach to the coming transatlantic partnership. Nevertheless, there will be opportunities for the EU to influence and shape this agenda.[31]
Most of the above mentioned points are also shared by Peter Rudolf, head of the America research group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. In addition, he underlines the change in rhetoric that has taken place under Obama. It can be expected that he will make a greater effort to rehabilitate and use America’s ‘soft power’. This also includes the instrumentalisation of ‘global governance institutions’ to integrate emerging powers. Along with this goes the understanding that America inhabits a ‘natural leadership role’ in organisations, such as the UN. On the other hand, America is autonomous enough not to join the International Court of Justice and also Obama remains sceptical in this question. He decided to wait and watch for now.[32]

Overall, it appears that the Afghanistan question will have a strong impact on the German-American and transatlantic relationship. An opinion poll published by the Financial Times reveals that some 60 percent of the German population would not wish their government to send more troops to Afghanistan “under any circumstances”.[33] However, as can be filtered out from the contributions above, it is most likely that Obama will demand some sort of contribution to this front from Europe. Thus, this issue will also be crucial for German-EU relations and the role of the EU as a civil-military partner. Additionally, the same opinion poll shows that “dealing with the international financial crisis” is in the top range of Germany’s priority list. However, whereas near to 60 percent of Americans subscribe to this point, only about 30 percent of Germans do so. Consequently, this could lead to a conflict of interest when other issues are given less attention than expected. Last but not least, the transatlantic partnership will be determined by Obama’s commitment to address environmental issues responsibly and sustainable. In the short term, however, many debates on all that in Germany will also be fought under the umbrella of the upcoming elections. It will be interesting to see which issues gain top priority once German politics follow their business as usual and once Obama has settled in his new office. One should not forget, after all, that Obama faces a serious amount of challenges at home, too.

[1] Financial Times Deutschland: Obama und McCain liegen gleich auf, 25 August 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[2] Angela Merkel, Pressemitteilung, Bundeskanzlerin online, 7 November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[3] Angela Merkel as quoted in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: Obama ruft eine Ära des Dienens aus, 20 January 2009.

[4] Eckart von Kleaden: Mit Europas Ausreden ist es bei Obama vorbei, CDU/CSU Bundestagsfraktion online, 8 November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[5] Ruprecht Polenz: Er wird auf die Verbündeten zugehen, Interview, Deutschlandradio, 5 November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[6] Eckart von Kleaden, 8 November 2008.

[7] RP online: Polenz: Obama soll Nahost-Konflikt als erstes angehen, 28 December 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[8] Deutschlandradio, 5 November 2008.

[9] CDU/CSU – Bundestagsfraktion (2009): Positionspapier der CDU/CSU – Bundestagsfraktion. Beschluss vom 20. January 2009, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[10] CDU/CSU – Bundestagsfraktion (2009), p. 4.

[11] CDU/CSU – Bundestagsfraktion (2009), p. 5.

[12] Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Im Engen Schulterschluss. Offener Brief von Außenminister Frank-Walter Steinmeier an Barack Obama, 12 January 2009, in: Der Spiegel, Nr. 3/2009, Hamburg: Spiegel-Verlag (German Version). The English version is available from the SPD website: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[13] DPA News agency: Germany to Obama: We Will Resist Calls for More Troops, Deutsche Welle online, 9 November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[14] Frank-Walter Steinmeier, 12 January 2009.

[15] Carsten Volkery: Der Überzeugungstäter der SPD, Spiegel online, 4 February 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[16] Karsten Voigt (2008): Die Wahlen in den USA und die Zukunft des deutsch-amerikanischen Verhältnisses, in: Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik, ZFAS (1), Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, pp. 6-15.

[17] Karsten Voigt (2008).

[18] Karsten Voigt (2008).

[19] The authors of the document are: Ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt (SPD), Ex-Bundespräsident Richard von Weizsäcker (CDU), foreign affairs expert Egon Bahr (SPD), and Ex-Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Gentscher (FDP). It was printed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on 9 January 2009.

[20] Guido Westerwelle: Abrüstung muss wieder zu einem Kernbestandteil deutscher Außenpolitik werden, Portal Liberal, 9 January 2009, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[21] Werner Hoyer: Barack Obama wird 44. US-President – Change has come to America, Portal Liberal, 7 November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).
[22] Werner Hoyer: Hoyer begrüßt Wandel in der US-Außenpolitik unter Obama, Portal Liberal, 26. November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[23] Claudia Roth and Reinhard Bütikofer: Eine historische Wahl, Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen, Presse-Info, 5 November 2008, available at: www.grü (last access: 30 January 2009).

[24] Rainder Steenblock: Obama braucht die Europäer, das weiß er, Interview, Deutsche Welle, 6 November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[25] Helmut Scholz: Realismus ist angebracht, Die Linke online, 5 November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[26] Wulf Schmiese: Streit in Berlin, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 22 January 2009, p. 2.

[27] Frankfurter Rundschau: Deutschland will enge Partnerschaft mit Obama, Frankfurter Rundschau online, 5 November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[28] Deutsche Welle: Germany has doubts about Obama’s Green Commitment, Deutsche Welle online, 6 November 2008, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).

[29] Stefan Fröhlich (2009): Außenpolitik unter Obama – pragmatischer Multilateralismus und transatlantische Annäherungen, in: intergration 1/2009, Berlin: Institut für Europäische Politik, pp. 3-16.

[30] Stefan Fröhlich (2009), p. 7.

[31] Stefan Fröhlich (2009), p. 15 ff.

[32] Peter Rudolf (2008): Amerikas neuer globaler Führungsanspruch. Außenpolitik unter Obama, SWP-Aktuell 77, November 2008, Berlin: SWP.

[33] Financial Times: Poll shows EU resistance on Afghan war, online, 19. January 2009, available at: (last access: 30 January 2009).