There was some head-scratching in Washington last week at the presentation of the Medal of Freedom to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The previous foreign recipients included Pope John Paul II, who championed the freedom of Eastern Europe; Nelson Mandela, who triumphed over apartheid in South Africa; and Helmut Kohl, who reunited Germany.
Did Merkel, for all her good qualities, really fit in that group?
“Why roll out the red carpet and present this honor to someone who has been a reluctant partner at best?” asks Stephen Szabo, who heads the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Academy in Washington.
The truth is that the medal for Merkel was an aspirational award, similar in many ways to the premature 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for President Obama. It signaled hopes for the future, rather than actual performance. As Szabo says, the administration decided to “celebrate the partner it wants, not the partner it has.” (Full disclosure: I’m a trustee at the fund, where Szabo works.)
Merkel’s visit highlighted an interesting problem for Obama, which I would describe as his “partnership deficit.” It’s a paradox that this genuinely multilateralist administration, eager to break with the unilateral policymaking of George W. Bush, has had trouble finding reliable partners. Merkel is a case in point, despite all the nice words Obama spoke about her at last week’s state dinner.
Defense Secretary Bob Gates slammed home the point in a speech Friday in Berlin, where he said the United States is tired of fighting for Europeans who “don’t want to share the risks and the costs.”
This is a world that resents American domination but is also wary of sharing the burden. Our allies don’t want to be followers, certainly, but they don’t want to share leadership, either. This deficit exists in every region, and it complicates Obama’s desire to offload some responsibilities at a time when U.S. financial resources are stretched.
Let’s start with Europe: Administration officials want the alliance with Europe to be a “catalyst for global change.” But in reality, this has been a relatively moribund period for the transatlantic relationship. Europe is preoccupied with its own problems. It talks about collective action through the European Union in Brussels, but policy decisions are still almost entirely centered in the national capitals. The European Union today is a study in frustration more than a catalyst.
The Libya mission illustrates the mixed blessings of shared responsibility. France and Britain are leading the NATO military effort, with the United States deliberately taking a back seat after the first week. But the fitful course of the campaign has many analysts wondering whether a successful NATO operation is possible if the United States isn’t at the steering wheel. The lack of German support underscores the frailty of the NATO collective response.
Then take China, which is a recurring demonstration of the difficulty of partnering on security issues. The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it wants Beijing’s help in dealing with the erratic nuclear-armed menace that is North Korea. The Chinese talk the language of shared responsibility in Sino-American meetings, but they never quite step up to the task of jointly solving problems. It seems they prefer to let things fester rather than take decisive action.
Henry Kissinger argues in his new book, “On China,” that the Chinese are culturally unfamiliar with the experience of being allies. Other nations were regarded chiefly as a source of tribute payments to the Middle Kingdom, and China didn’t even have a foreign ministry until the 19th century, Kissinger says. The Obama administration may be asking for a kind of cooperation that China does not yet know how to give.
The same partnership deficit has existed with India, Asia’s other rising power. A big test for Obama will be whether he can encourage India to step up and join a regional framework for stabilizing Afghanistan as America withdraws troops.
America had close alliances during the Cold War, but Fred Kempe, president of the Atlantic Council, notes that the partnership was often contentious. In his just-published book, “Berlin 1961,” Kempe notes that President John F. Kennedy had to cope with a British prime minister who talked conciliation, a French president who talked belligerence and a German chancellor who mistrusted the new American president. The lesson, says Kempe, is that “when it comes to historic inflection points, America has to lead.”
Obama came to office rightly convinced that America needed to exercise power through global institutions and alliances, rather than unilaterally. But he has discovered that it’s easier to give medals than get results. “Leading from behind,” as a White House official described Obama’s style of strategic reticence to the New Yorker, isn’t necessarily a bad idea. It just doesn’t work in today’s world.