Jun 18, 2013 | 16:12 GMT

4 mins read

U.S., Germany: Common Ground in a Complex Relationship

U.S., Germany: Common Ground in a Complex Relationship

Germany's geographic position at the heart of Europe forces Berlin to formulate a multifaceted foreign policy. It must balance its military alliance with the United States against its energy ties with Russia, Berlin's largest natural gas supplier. This balancing act often creates friction between U.S. and German leaders, but both countries are interested in developing stronger economic ties. It is through this context that U.S. President Barack Obama's June 18-19 visit to Germany must be viewed. During his visit — his first official visit to Germany as president — he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will to try to advance a U.S.-EU free trade agreement. 

The United States and Germany have a long and complex bilateral relationship. After World War II and the U.S. occupation of West Germany, Washington wanted to integrate the Federal Republic of Germany into Western institutions. The incorporation of the republic into NATO (1955) and into the European Economic Community (1957) was part of this strategy. In the early 1990s, the United States also supported German reunification despite the misgivings of some Western European countries, such as the United Kingdom and France.

In the early 2000s, the relationship between Berlin and Washington cooled. Germany is a part of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, but in 2003 it opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq as it began to forge closer ties with a re-emergent Russia. Later in the decade, Germany rejected NATO's expansion to Ukraine and Georgia — two key former Soviet satellites — in deference to Moscow. While the European Union sank in its political and economic crisis, the United States concentrated its attention on the Middle East and East Asia.

Rapprochement and Concessions

Germany's position at the geographic center of Europe also puts it at the political center of the Continent. Its geographic position helps explain why Berlin alternates gestures of rapprochement with the United States and concessions to Russia.

One of the main points of contention between Moscow and Washington is NATO's plan to deploy missile defense batteries in Central Europe — a plan that Russia sees as a direct threat. In a clear sign of appeasing Russia, Merkel has long maintained that NATO and Russia should cooperate on missile defense.

This does not mean that the bilateral relationship between Germany and Russia is without tension. Berlin often criticizes Moscow on human right issues, and some German lawmakers oppose EU-Russia negotiations on a visa-free travel program for Russian officials.

Unlike Moscow, Berlin advocates a measured position on Syria. And unlike France and the United Kingdom, Germany supported the arms embargo that the European Union imposed on Syria (the embargo banned EU members from delivering weapons to rebel forces). Although Merkel criticized the al Assad regime, Berlin avoided direct confrontation with Russia over this issue. Merkel also opposed NATO's 2011 Libya intervention, which Moscow also criticized.

In recent years, Germany and the United States expressed different views on how to resolve the European crisis. Various members of the Obama administration criticized the fiscal consolidation policies advocated by Berlin and urged Merkel's government to increase domestic demand. In June, U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew pressured the European Union to expedite the formation of a full banking union as Germany pushed Brussels to do so more slowly.

Common Economic Interests

Germany and the United States share important economic interests. The United States is Germany's second-largest export destination and its fourth-largest source of imports. Germany is the United States' sixth-largest export destination and its fifth-largest source of imports.

Moreover, Berlin and Washington support the plans for a EU-U.S. free trade agreement, which was put forward June 14. Tariffs between the two already are relatively low — 3 percent on average — so the key point of the agreement lies mostly in the reduction of non-tariff barriers. These barriers are the result of diverging regulatory systems and measures related to security or consumer protection.

European officials expressed optimism that the agreement would be ready by the end of 2014, though the process will probably take longer. The European Union only reached a consensus to start negotiations after promising Paris that the French audiovisual sector would be protected. Protectionism in Europe's agricultural sector and the use of U.S. genetically modified crops has also been a major obstacle to negotiate past agreements between Europe and the United States.

These points of agreement and contention between Berlin and Washington emphasize the balance that Germany's foreign policy agenda must strike. Economic agreements between Berlin and Washington do not necessarily affect Moscow, but agreements between Germany and Russia generate tension with the United States. As Europe's leading exporter, Germany is interested in making trade agreements with the United States. But as the main political and economic power in Europe, it must also preserve its strategic relationship with Russia.

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