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Angela Merkel’s swan song in Washington

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Angela Merkel is no stranger to Washington. The German chancellor, in power since 2005, has already visited the White House during three administrations. But things will be different when she greets President Biden on Thursday. With her impending retirement, this will probably be the swan song of the 16-year Merkel era in U.S.-German relations.

The big question then is not so much what happens now, but what comes next. Neither Germans nor Americans can truly know. Despite the relative consistency of the German years, the relationship has seen its ups and downs. As The Washington Post’s Berlin bureau chief Loveday Morris explains, Merkel worked with “some more smoothly than others.”

Angela Merkel will step down as Germany's chancellor in September 2021. In that time, she's met with four sitting U.S. presidents. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard, Loveday Morris/The Washington Post)

Merkel met first with President George W. Bush, a fellow conservative with whom she shared a surprisingly jovial relationship. Then there was President Barack Obama, who catered to Merkel’s liberal internationalist impulses enough to overcome that whole spying-on-her-phone thing. The four years of President Donald Trump were notoriously difficult, with the reserved Merkel often serving as a foil to the American leader’s brash and impulsive style.

But now she faces Biden, whom Merkel already knows from his time as vice president during the Obama administration and who views the world through a similar, pragmatic lens. Biden has praised the German leader, who has outlasted her critics in the Trump administration. As Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution writes in the Financial Times, her visit will be “at once valedictory and a victory lap.”

The issues in U.S.-German relations have not disappeared with Trump, however. As Josef Braml, a German political analyst, told the Wall Street Journal, “Trump was not the cause but rather the symptom of a structural change in the U.S. relationship with Germany and Europe.”

Two of the most glaring issues are related to Russia and China, two U.S. foes. Specifically, there is Nord Stream 2, a natural-gas pipeline that will run directly to Germany from Russia. The Biden administration, much like others in Washington, strongly opposes the pipeline, warning it will give Moscow further leverage over Europe and potentially hurt Ukraine, which receives substantial revenue through an already existing pipeline that runs through its land.

The State Department eased off the threat of sanctions over the project this spring, in part because it appeared to be a moot threat with the completion of the pipeline expected by the end of August. However, it remains a sticking point for many Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has held up Senate confirmations for Biden’s pending political nominees until the State Department rescinds its waiver of sanctions against the project.

On China, the issues are far broader but arguably more fundamental. The East Asian giant overtook the United States as Germany’s top trading partner in 2016, and Berlin has shown far less interest in “decoupling” the West from China than U.S. partners would have hoped.

Merkel is a key part of this. Writing in Foreign Policy on Wednesday, Thorsten Benner, co-founder of the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, dubbed Merkel a “nemesis of President Joe Biden’s China policy.” He added: “That the free world is in a decisive struggle against an authoritarian China is one of the few things Democrats and Republicans can agree on. Merkel has chosen not to abide by this bipartisan consensus.”

Those in the German government, of course, view things differently. The German chancellor has pushed the idea that Europe can stand up to Russia and China when it needs to. In the days before Merkel’s arrival in Washington on Wednesday, officials gave interviews to U.S.-focused outlets that emphasized they were perhaps still not over the ill effects of the Trump era.

“The concern is that, realistically, there could again be some other administration in the U.S. that might come back to what we saw during Trump,” Peter Beyer, Germany’s coordinator for trans-Atlantic affairs, told the New York Times. Europe also needs to be given a seat at the table when it comes to decision-making on big issues like Russia and China, diplomats told Bloomberg News.

These tensions will not end with Merkel’s leadership. Recent polling shows that Germans hold a much more favorable opinion of Biden than they did of Trump. But other questions from recent surveys reveal that deeper changes in perceptions of the United States have taken root.

Data from the end of Trump’s term showed that while Americans view Germany as a partner on key foreign policy issues, the feeling was not often reciprocated. Polling data from Pew Research released last year found that 55 percent of Germans thought China had overtaken the United States as the world’s leading economic power. A poll conducted for the Welt newspaper by polling firm Infratest Dimap in December found that only 17 percent of Germans supported siding with the United States in a potential U.S.-China conflict, with three-quarters preferring to remain neutral.

Merkel’s exit has been a prolonged one; she announced her intention to step down in 2018. But who will succeed her after a new government is formed following the Bundestag election in September remains unclear. Right now, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is performing well in polls. If the party wins, Merkel ally Armin Laschet would win the chancellorship — potentially ruffling some feathers in Washington given his past comments about not just Russia and China, but Syria, too.

Social Democrat Olaf Scholz of the rival center-left party is unlikely to present a dramatic shift in foreign policy. American audiences may feel most aligned with Annalena Baerbock, a rising star with the German Greens: Despite her party’s long-standing skepticism of Western power, Baerbock has pushed a much tougher line on Russia and China.

The Washington Post’s Charles Lane wrote in an op-ed on Wednesday that Merkel had often been misunderstood by her U.S. fans — her image as liberal icon only possible when viewed through the funhouse mirror of American partisan politics. But what is clear is that the Germany she leads in 2021 is more skeptical of U.S. power than it was in 2005.

Changing that zeitgeist may fall not to Biden and Merkel, but to whoever works with the U.S. president after her.

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