A fundamental shift in interests and outlook is leaving the United States and Germany with potentially irreconcilable differences.
U.S. grand strategy relies not just on diplomats, soldiers and sailors but also on trade negotiators. But economic initiatives serve geopolitical goals. Promotion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a promising multinational trade deal, is as much about establishing a counter to rising China as is the shift of more U.S. warships into Asian waters.
German officials, on the other hand, are focused ever more narrowly on economic stability and sustainability. Before the euro zone descended into crisis, Germany appeared to be becoming a “normal” Western power, interested in extending its political influence and willing to commit troops to defend its liberal values and security in Kosovo and Afghanistan. More recently, however, Germany has become less multilateral, at least on security questions, and less willing to transfer sovereignty to supranational institutions such as the European Union or to take part in international missions. The result is a strange mix of economic assertiveness and military abstinence. Germany has become a geo-economic power, using commerce to extend its influence and advance its interests.
And U.S. geopolitical ambitions and Germany’s geo-economic agenda are clashing. Eighteen months ago, Germany infuriated the White House by joining Brazil, India, Russia and China in abstaining on the U.N. Security Council proposal to create a no-fly zone over Libya. The decision provoked speculation that Germany wanted to shed its supporting role in the U.S.-led Western alliance in favor of the more independent, non-aligned and mercantilist-driven positions taken by leading emerging powers.
But the real rift had begun to open six months earlier, during the Group of 20 summit in South Korea. President Obama, who had spent weeks trying to rally developing countries behind the idea of global rebalancing, was taken by surprise when the German chancellor made common cause with China and other export nations to oppose this stance. The German abstention on Libya made no difference to U.S. plans, but at the G-20, Berlin and Washington stood on opposite sides of the most fundamental questions facing world leaders: How can governments rebalance the world’s trade relations, and should they stimulate demand or impose austerity?
Unfortunately, there is little Obama can do to win the Germans back. Washington can bolster the loyalty of other allies with offers of political access, military hardware and intelligence. The commerce-minded Germans are not interested in these. U.S. officials gripe that Merkel will not listen to the president’s advice for managing the euro-zone crisis. German officials say that the world’s second-largest creditor has little to learn from its leading debtor.