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Catherine Cheney

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The German-American Relationship: In the Name of What?

Posted: 09/27/11 04:25 PM ET

Over the course of my eight weeks in Berlin, countless headlines and conversations have centered on a question I first encountered a couple days before my arrival: "In the name of what does the transatlantic relationship proceed into the 21st century?"

Jackson Janes, Executive Director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, posed the question. He was discussing transatlantic relations with nine American journalists and nine German journalists gathered in Washington, D.C. before we headed to separate newsrooms on either side of the Atlantic.

At the time, I approached the question from the perspective of someone who had spent the past year working inside the beltway. I put stars around the words in my notebook, and added a few notes of my own: When it comes to the transatlantic relationship, and particularly the relationship between Berlin and Washington, what is in it for America? I wrote. Never having set foot in Germany, I added a few possible and very American responses: in the name of global security? and in the name of burden sharing?

But after spending two months in Berlin, reading the local papers, and traveling and talking to people throughout the country, I have also begun to look at this question from the German point of view. In the name of what will Germany carry on its relationship with the United States? How will Berlin address, or perhaps ignore, increasingly complex global problems and increasingly high expectations?

Taking another look at my notes, I now see two sides to this story.

My first article on the German-American relationship had to do with the German decision to abstain from the United Nations vote authorizing military intervention in Libya. From my desk in Washington, D.C., far from the people and perspectives I would later encounter in Berlin, I wrote about the visit Chancellor Angela Merkel made to the White House in order to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. "Obama did take advantage of such a moment beside Merkel, and before draped German and American flags, to offer a not-so-subtle reminder on the importance of cooperation," I wrote. "And two lines came through loud and clear in English and in their German translation: 'She's not finished yet; she's got a lot more work to do.'"

After relocating from Washington to Berlin, I see how, even in German media, the Libya decision remains a major focus in discussions on what will carry the transatlantic relationship into this next century. Despite attempts to redeem itself, with political leaders pointing to the effectiveness of sanctions, emphasizing increased responsibilities in Afghanistan, and promising to work with the political transition in Libya, Germany continues to be a subject of great criticism.

Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called the abstention "a one-of-a-kind debacle and perhaps the biggest foreign policy debacle since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany." Klaus Naumann, former general inspector of the Bundeswehr, wrote that "Germany's hopes for a permanent Security Council seat can be buried," criticizing the country for turning "the idea of a unified European Union foreign policy into a farce." And former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl explained that "the enormous changes in the world can be no excuse for having no view or idea where you belong and where you are going."

Since March, critics of the Libya decision have labeled Germany as an uncertain, unreliable, awkward transatlantic ally. The American answer to the "in the name of what?" question has become much more complicated. But after spending time on the other side of the Atlantic, it quickly became clear that the American answer is not the only answer, and I revisited those pages in my notebook.

Next to my initial thoughts, I scribbled a small word: Germany.

How does Germany answer this question? When it comes to a strong transatlantic relationship, what is in it for Berlin? Do German interests align with American expectations? From my office down the street from the Reichstag, I called Janes, whose talk on the transatlantic relationship led to so many other thoughts, questions, and interviews in the course of my reporting here.

In years past, Janes said, Germany was the object rather than the subject of American foreign policy. But with its expanding influence, the country is now confronted with choices it did not have before, on issues that extend far beyond its borders. This puts Germany in a new and uncomfortable position, particularly given its history. "Germany hates to be singled out. In the post war period it was always 'never again and never alone,'" he said said. "Now, Germans have to make hard choices like everyone else, but because of 'never again, never alone,' they can't define that."

In abstaining from the Libya vote, Germany acted alone, but not in a way that reflected leadership to an America that seeks a partner it can count on. Germany now finds itself in a damned if you do, damned if you don't position that America has grown used to. Washington demands that Berlin show more leadership, but when Germany tries to exert its influence, it is criticized for having a haphazard foreign policy. "Germany was getting to a point where it felt really good about where it was," Janes said of the years preceding the Libya decision and the criticism that followed. "Germany has got to get used to that. They can't just sit around and say, 'We're the nice guys."

The Libya abstention was inconsistent with the German foreign policy maxim of acting with its allies, or as Janes put it, "seeking to express any of its interests under the cover of the European idea." And for America, inconsistency is a cause for concern. Washington is watching and waiting, losing patience as German action -- or inaction, for that matter -- fails to fulfill American expectations.

"There will be more Libyas," Janes explained, and "less capacity" for America to address global issues without help. But does Germany necessarily want the role that America envisions for it? As I look back at the initial question in my notebook, consider the Germany? note next to it, and reflect on eight weeks of observations and interviews, it becomes very clear that the American answer, and approval from Washington, may not be the be all end all as Germany seeks to answer "in the name of what?" for itself.