Merkel’s moment of power and partnership with America is right now

She’s leveled up with her responses to the events of recent weeks.
She’s leveled up with her responses to the events of recent weeks.
Image: Reuters/Gary Cameron
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Resolute, committed and cautiously optimistic: Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel put on a brave face in communicating the outcome of the 16-hour marathon negotiations on a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weaponry from Ukraine’s most embattled front lines, which took place on February 11.

Merkel has been on one of the most critical diplomatic missions of her tenure–and her work is far from over. In the course of a month, she has shed the image of the “quiet German” to fully embody the role of the “most powerful woman in the world” on an international stage. In the course of three days, she has reinforced that she speaks for Europe on a transatlantic stage and in an inter-European context: Shoulder to shoulder with President Obama in a press conference last week, always two steps ahead of French President Hollande in the announcement of the new Minsk provisions.

Germany’s leadership in the euro zone is uncontested. Its interest in close coordination of its foreign policy with European partners critical to preserving and expanding on a new sense of trusted leadership. The reality of a credible “transatlantic renaissance,” following the rift left by the Snowden and NSA spying revelations, is perhaps the more unanticipated effect of the Ukraine crisis. If Germany’s moment is now, how durable is the Kintsukuroi in the transatlantic relationship?

Like the ancient Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold while preserving the signs of rift (Kintsukuroi), the cracks in the transatlantic and particularly the German-American relationship have made it more–but not entirely–resistant to destructive pressures. The demands of an increasingly non-polar world, with asymmetric, coinciding challenges of territorial conflict, violent extremism and the rapid spread of pandemic disease is forging a stronger, more stable Western alliance. The rifts and ridges, however, remain visible as signs of maturity and growth and renewed commitment to common objectives.

What makes Germany such a formidable partner for the US at this point? What threatens the reality of the Kinstukuroi process?


Since the Brisbane speech following the G-20 Summit, when Angela Merkel’s tether with Russian negotiation antics seemed to have frayed beyond repair, she has become both a critical interlocutor for the European Union and intermediary for Obama. Her role as Western envoy on the Ukraine question–and her ability to stand up to criticism from American lawmakers (as was the case at the Munich Security Conference) demonstrates how far the transatlantic relationship has come since the Balkan crisis of the 1990s.

The commitments to the NATO goals mapped out in Wales to protect alliance partners in the Baltics and in the East, are largely being met, though US vice president Joe Biden reminded the Europeans in Munich that protection does not come for free. Germans are keenly aware of the fact they have to modernize their military equipment and resources to participate in the resolution of global challenges, from Ebola to countering ISIS–and chances are the country’s defense minister will be able to convince Germany’s parliament of a modest defense spending increase this year are high.

The Americans are deeply embedded and engaged in European diplomacy and likewise, the Europeans are feeling heard by Washington on the need to maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Last week’s press conference underlined that both sides were “united in their diplomacy.” Obama’s decision to carefully frame the possibility of deployment of lethal force to the Ukrainian military will have actually helped–not hindered–Merkel in her discussions overnight. Thus, the ongoing debates on both sides of the Atlantic, within the US administration itself and the think tank and academic community should not be read as a sign of weakness, but as a signal of maturity and “strategic patience”–the key concept in the US National Security Strategy and in the German foreign minister’s speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 7.


The Munich Security Conference side-bar conversations also generated progress on the Iran nuclear negotiations, with a date–June 30, 2015–set for the finalization of an agreement. While the negotiations guided by German and European diplomats have been largely held in secret, Western partners in the P5+1 have agreed on the necessity to uphold sanctions, without deciding on an additional round. In their joint press conference, Obama and Merkel renewed their view that it was now up to Iran to use the window of opportunity and necessary political will to achieve a lasting agreement. Meanwhile, European foreign ministers came out in support of the president’s views on holding sanctions steady in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post.


Widely heralded to bring jobs and growth back to Europe and further rejuvenate the US economy, this transatlantic project has been moving at glacial pace, not least because of complex dispute regulation mechanisms (now temporarily moved aside) and key questions around norms and standards on non-tariff barriers. Better, more equal and even market access could be a critical ingredient to increase the stake both economies have in one another (a potential growth “bonanza” for EU countries at 0.5% GDP growth by 2027), binding economic fate more closely.

Yet, this trade deal faces the strongest opposition of any recent joint initiative. Fueled by remaining distrust vis-à-vis the United States, 1.2 million Germans signed a “stop TTIP” petition in just ten weeks. Given these realities, experts now recommend that the negotiations relaunched last week focus on getting an agreement more limited in scope–a work in progress–coupled with a strong education campaign to prevent a greater backlash against globalization. European and American leadership will face an uphill battle with public opinion, but a trimmed down deal coupled with public education efforts should create substantial progress on this deal in the next two years.

Radical extremism and ISIS

The confluence of the rise of extremist threats across the globe, most notably in Africa, Iraq and Syria with a commitment by German policy-makers to ‘networked diplomacy,’ based on the American model, has allowed Germany to respond with unprecedented speed to the global advances on countering radical extremism. In a historic decision, the Bundestag decided to arm Kurdish* Peshmerga forces and participate in training forces in Erbil. The United States can count on German support on combating ISIS, not least because there are an estimated 500+ young Germans that have been recruited into the organization’s ranks.

Energy, economy, jobs

Finally–in advance of the G-7 meeting on Schloss Elmau in June 2015 – the US and Germany can make concrete advances around key issues of growth and competitiveness in the global economy aside from trade. Pairing development and diplomacy in a more measurable way to address root causes of conflict is a leading issue on the Chancellor’s agenda for the summer summit. The US’ QDDR is an exemplary initiative receiving renewed attention as part of an overhaul of German foreign policy in its Review 2014 project. Climate change, energy policy (independence) and jobs and growth issues (including the empowerment of women) are already on the agenda.

With Germany’s push to diversify its energy market, heavy investment in renewable energy and plans to phase out nuclear energy by 2022 as part of its Energiewende, it can provide arguments for Obama’s push toward renewable energy as a “job engine for growth, ” as he mapped out in the 2015 State of the Union address. Germany, it turns out, leads record wind power growth in Europe–creating the expected clean energy jobs. With energy independence from Russia being one of America’s proclaimed strategic policy goals for Europe, and its desire to expand the renewable technology market at home, this could be a key issue for renewed transatlantic cooperation.

On job creation, the US is clearly interested in continuing to “borrow” from the German model around employment diversification, more training for trade related professions and the apprenticeship model. These ideas have crept into two of Obama’s last State of the Union addresses and are already at work across the country.

Analysts predict that no negotiated ceasefire will stop the subversive tactics of hybrid warfare Russians have used to engender nationalist sentiments in ethnic Russians across swathes of Eurasia. Russian propaganda is now squarely focused on Russian minorities in NATO member states. NATO allies will need a more comprehensive response to these challenges. The greatest threat to transatlantic Kinstukuroi, however, comes courtesy of German and American publics.

Thus, while policy makers recognize they are in the “midst of a defining moment for their partnership,” voters have yet to catch on. Germany is still experiencing a groundswell of anti-American sentiment, which has manifested not only in the virulent opposition to TTIP, but also with respect to the West’s policy on Russia and Ukraine. Before the Ukraine crisis became a “decisive moment” a German Marshall Fund survey found that Germans were beginning to give preference to a foreign policy that looked “independent” of the United States, while 52% of Americans wanted to see the US retreat from the world stages, as a Pew Foundation survey reveals.

The dramatic events of the past few weeks could be a start of a turning tide, but policy-makers will have to remain vigilant if they are committed to preserving the reforged strength of this valuable alliance.

*Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Peshmerga forces as Turkish. They are Kurdish.