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reflections

Apr 2, 2009 | 01:53 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Setting the Stage for U.S.-German Discussions

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
A phalanx of bilateral meetings among a score of world leaders took place Tuesday and Wednesday, kicking off a week of momentous summits. As these summits build, it is interesting to note that some of the most loudly talked-about issues of the day are already amounting to little, while the quieter talks well might shape the course of the next few years. The G-20 summit, for example, has been the talk of the press for nearly the past month: It has been a focal point for discussions about new financial architecture, International Monetary Fund reform and the role of the United States in the international economy. But on the eve of the summit, it was clear — from both STRATFOR’s intelligence sources and the public statements of various G-20 leaders — that very little was going to happen there. The Americans and British were speaking Wednesday as if the summit was already over; the Japanese were parroting the U.S. position on all questions of importance; the Russians and Chinese clearly did not care; and the South Africans and Indonesians showed up just for the photo op. All of this has left the French (who came up with the idea for the summit) annoyed, and the Germans (who actually have a plan they would like to see adopted) fuming. This is not to say that what happens at the G-20 will be inconsequential. We expect broad agreement on, for example, roughly doubling the resources of the IMF. But the G-20 meeting will really only set the tone for far more critical discussions between the Germans and Americans at the NATO and EU-U.S. summits that follow. In these talks, it is the Germans who will matter most, as they are heading for a conflict with the United States. Germany sees a powerful international regulator as the best means of preventing the U.S. financial system from triggering a repeat of the 2008 meltdown. Berlin does not see much point in local stimulus spending, as its economy is dependent upon exports rather than internal consumption. And it has no desire to reinforce NATO troops in Afghanistan or take steps that will annoy Russia, its primary energy provider. The United States, in contrast, sees stimulus rather than regulation as the best means of restarting economic growth — after all, some 70 percent of the U.S. economy is consumer-driven. The new administration has committed to fighting the war in Afghanistan — the "real war," to use President Barack Obama’s words — and expects help from the Europeans. Washington also plans to build a cordon around the Russians, who are pressing increasingly hard on states that not only are members of NATO, but also in the European Union. Obama’s credibility is based partly on the idea that a softer tone with the European allies will generate more assistance. The Germans had liked the idea of Obama because they thought he would be more accommodating to their interests and request less of them than George W. Bush did. It is less a clash of perceptions than one of hard national interests. This doesn’t exactly come as a shock to us. Such disagreement between the United States and Germany is hard-wired by geography. The United States – which controls vast tracts of usable land and faces no serious competitors on its continent — has an interest in preventing any other country from achieving a similar level of security or size. After all, it would require such a massive power — or coalition of powers — to seriously threaten U.S. security. Therefore, the Americans instinctively back the independence of Europe’s smaller states – while Germany, the biggest player on the continent, inevitably seeks to band those small states together into a German-dominated economic and/or military union. Most Americans are used to thinking of Germany as an ally. But they often forget that for most of the post-World War II era, Germany was divided and occupied. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and reunification was not completed until 1999, with the relocation of the capital from Bonn to Berlin. And it was not until December 2005 that a new postwar chancellor — Angela Merkel — took command of a fully independent and reunified country. To put it bluntly, the Cold War era (during which Germany was not allowed to have an opinion) has ended, and Germany now is acting like a real country again. And that means it does not always get along with everyone. This week's events will hardly prove a breaking point in U.S.-German relations. But they will serve as a wake-up call for both sides that not only is all not well within NATO, but also that the Germans’ problem with Bush was less about his personality and policies than about the fact that he was an American. In the days ahead, that truth will dominate several meetings and force the Obama administration — hip-deep in conflict with the Russians and neck-deep in the war in Afghanistan — to face some uncomfortable choices about how to achieve its goals, and upon whom it can rely.

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