On Thursday, Merkel is visiting the White House for the last time before she will retire after the German federal elections in September. The schedule is packed. She is to receive an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins University. President Biden and first lady Jill Biden will host a dinner at the White House for Merkel and her husband, Joachim Sauer, a professor of theoretical chemistry. In between, there will be bilateral talks as well as discussions in a larger round, and a news conference.
Biden is the fourth U.S. president to welcome Merkel in Washington, and much has changed throughout her 16-year tenure. In 2006, Bush and Merkel were widely regarded as seeing eye to eye politically, and it was understood that she would have been more sympathetic than Schroeder to Bush’s Iraq policy.
But Bush and Merkel also had their differences. As so often, there was friction between Germany and the United States over NATO. Bush supported a bid by the former Soviet satellite states of Georgia and Ukraine to join the alliance, an idea that Merkel and many of her European colleagues vehemently opposed. In a spectacular showdown at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, delegations from the United States and Germany openly berated each other in the corridors between sessions.
When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, Merkel’s response was initially cool. She had already built a close relationship with Hillary Clinton and found it hard to forgive Obama for beating her to the Democratic presidential nomination. But his charisma eventually broke through her reserve. It was Obama who bestowed on Merkel the United States’ highest civilian award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in June 2011 — an honor that only one other German has ever received, former chancellor Helmut Kohl, her political mentor.
Transatlantic relations then took a severe hit in 2013 when it emerged that the National Security Agency had tapped the phones of more than 30 world leaders, including Merkel’s. To someone who spent her youth in a surveillance state that spied on its own citizens, Obama’s reassurance must have sounded hollow: “And so what I can say is: As long as I’m president of the United States, the chancellor of Germany will not have to worry about this.”
However, Merkel’s biggest diplomatic challenge came in the shape of former president Donald Trump. The latter’s ego had already been dented by the fact that Merkel had been chosen as Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2015, to Trump’s great annoyance (“They picked [the] person who is ruining Germany,” he tweeted). The two leaders clashed over everything from climate change to Germany’s NATO contributions. Where images of Merkel with Bush and Obama were dominated by smiles, kisses and handshakes, the most iconic image of Merkel and Trump would remain one of a stern-faced German chancellor leaning over a table to address a seated U.S. president with his arms folded and his gaze firmly avoiding hers.
How significant is Thursday’s meeting, as Biden’s term dawns and Merkel’s sets? There are contentious issues galore, among them the pandemic, cybersecurity and climate change. Perhaps the prickliest issue is the Russo-German gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, now nearing completion. The United States fears that the pipeline will make Germany over-dependent on Russia and endanger the energy security of Eastern European states.
While Merkel has been given the honor of being the first European leader to visit the new president in the White House the meeting is unlikely to do more than paper over the cracks in transatlantic relations. There will be friendly words about the soon-to-exit German leader and plenty of rhetoric about closer cooperation between the two nations.
The difficult task to find a concrete way forward for the two allies will fall to Merkel’s successor. That is likely to be Armin Laschet, who earlier this year was elected as leader of her Christian Democratic Union but has neither Merkel’s experience nor gravitas. The serious U.S-German discussions will be postponed to later in the year. This visit is mostly about saying “auf Wiedersehen” to Chancellor Merkel.