On what is his last tour of Europe this week, and what is likely to be his last major tour abroad, outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama has reserved a full two days for Berlin. This unusually long visit to the German capital is not a coincidence. It is here that he first became a figure of global importance when, in July 2008, the then-candidate mesmerized a crowd of 200,000 Berliners. It is here that he developed his strongest rapport with any world leader: German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Most importantly, however, it is here that his foreign-policy legacy now has its strongest, if not last, line of defense.
That Obama would develop this level of political and personal intimacy with the country was hardly obvious eight years ago. In character alone, Obama and Merkel made for something of an odd couple. The charismatic orator met understatement personified. The public intellectual outshined the reclusive scientist. His biography spans the globe; she hails from provincial East Germany. The one roused sky-high expectations; the other was eternally underestimated. And if Obama’s attention was drawn to the rising powers of Asia, Merkel was focused on keeping the Old Continent afloat. It seemed improbable back then that the two leaders would form any bond beyond the polite and professional.
Politically, Obama and Merkel also inherited a U.S.-German relationship that was at a historic low. Both their predecessors in office had clashed openly and bitterly over intervention in Iraq. American views of Europe’s largest power had soured; German confidence in U.S. leadership was shot. America saw Germany as the epitome of Old Europe, ailing politically, economically, and militarily. Germans felt the world’s policeman had become a loose cannon and saw its economy as a trailblazer for casino capitalism. With alienation and suspicion running deep, hopes were naturally high — especially on the German side — that Obama’s ascent to the presidency would make the relationship more cordial and cooperative again.
This, however, proved harder than expected. An Obama quick fix to what many considered the excesses of the U.S. war on terror did not materialize; his failure to close the prison at Guantanamo has been particularly disappointing. U.S.-German relations were also not spared new strains. Berlin’s refusal to support a NATO-led intervention in Libya was as incomprehensible to the United States as it was to the country’s other allies (even if history has since offered some vindication for that reluctance). Germany’s handling of the eurozone crisis was openly criticized by Washington, which feared a new downturn for a global economy that was barely in recovery. In turn, revelations of extensive National Security Agency surveillance of international organizations and Western governments, including of Merkel herself, left Germans perplexed and angered at the United States.
Relations between the United States and Germany, and between their two leaders, remained reserved throughout Obama’s first term, and even well into his second. To their credit, the two governments handled their various conflicts with care and avoided open clashes. But the new momentum that so many in Germany had hoped for did not materialize, and Obama, who had made such a splashy debut in 2008, avoided visiting Berlin for five whole years, as if in fear of confronting those he’d disappointed.
By the time he returned to the capital, however, in June 2013, global forces were aligning in ways that would bring the United States and Germany together instead of pushing them apart. What finally brought Obama and Merkel closer — what has helped them forge a still-growing bond — was a succession of direct assaults on the liberal international order, and, with it, peace and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic.
First came Russia’s aggressive campaign to challenge the international status quo. Moscow made claims to an exclusive sphere of influence in Ukraine and elsewhere. It demanded a seat at the table in conflicts like Syria. It interfered in the domestic politics of Western countries, and sought to test the limits of NATO, all as part of an effort to seek a systemic confrontation with the West. In response, neither European nor transatlantic unity faltered, as Russian President Vladimir Putin may have expected. The surprising resolve on the part of the West owes, in no small measure, to the Obama-Merkel team. It was the German chancellor who became the key interlocutor with the Kremlin and rallied reluctant Europeans behind sanctions against Russia. The U.S. president, in turn, added transatlantic coherence by making sure that American responses and sanctions were in lockstep with those of the European Union.
Next came heightened pressures to prevent the territorial advances and consolidation of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and, with it, the further spread of international terrorism. Despite its traditional reluctance to engage in military actions abroad, Germany joined the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State as early as September 2014, swiftly provided arms and equipment to Kurdish fighters and, a year later, authorized the deployment of a Bundeswehr contingent to Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean. This German contribution stood in marked contrast to Merkel’s earlier refusals to support Western interventions in Libya and Syria. What made the difference was shock over a mounting wave of terrorist attacks, not least those in Paris in November 2015.
Then, the refugee crisis. By the summer of 2015, hundreds of thousands had embarked on the dangerous passage from war-torn Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to seek asylum in Europe. While more and more European countries along their route sealed off their borders, Merkel made the decision — courageous to many, catastrophic to others — to keep Germany open to refugees. The chancellor’s decision to defend this as a moral obligation and constitutional right is reported to have made a deep impression on Obama, not least because in his own country, the U.S. president was facing stiff Republican opposition to accepting Syrian refugees.
Finally, the groundswell of rabid populism across Europe and the United States has left Obama and Merkel equally troubled, and caught them equally flat-footed. Both understand that ever-more aggressive nationalist politics threaten to roll back decades of democratic expansion, to replace law with violence, both inside countries and among them, and to destroy the very foundations of justice, welfare, and peace. Merkel has felt this mounting pressure across Europe for years, and she is now confronted by rising populism in Germany, not least in response to her own refugee policy. Across the Atlantic, Obama has had to learn that the United States is not immune, as the recent election of Donald Trump as his successor shows. For the American and the German alike, this tribalism and turning inward in response to globalization is clearly wrong. They have both had to learn, however, that their instinctive appeals for openness are not as persuasive as they would like and may even trigger backlashes.
Other events and issues could be added to this story of cooperation, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Paris agreement on global warming, to the now-stalled Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. But it also seems that beyond substance, the bond between Obama and Merkel has gradually developed on a deeper level. They have increasingly emerged as a surprising set of kindred spirits: leaders who, for all their differences, have found common ground in a shared willingness to run against the current of popular opinion and, perhaps, a shared sense that their kind are increasingly outnumbered.
This willingness means both leaders have weathered their share of public outrage at times. Obama’s decision to refrain from bombing Syria as Bashar al-Assad was gassing civilians in 2013, or his refusal to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine as it faced a Russian war, contradicted nearly the entire U.S. foreign-policy establishment and political class. Merkel’s exit from nuclear energy had German business up in arms, her support for sanctions against Russia defied widespread accommodationist positions, and her decision to keep Germany open to refugees earned her angry accusations from many Europeans of moral imperialism. None of these decisions make Obama and Merkel political idealists; both would rather define themselves as realist internationalists. But perhaps they are, most accurately, long-termists.
If, in these cases, Obama and Merkel radically departed from majority opinion and political inertia, it was because they were driven by a commitment to realistic, sustainable, incremental change. This “long game,” as one Obama-watcher has labeled it, seeks to shed the impulsiveness that comes with news cycles and terms of office, to set a longer-term horizon for political action, and to reinvest in strategic patience. Merkel — shaped as she was, personally, by the Iron Curtain and its sudden crumbling and, politically, by her mentor, the historian-turned-politician Helmut Kohl — is similarly convinced that day-to-day politics must be informed by principle and stamina if it is to make a difference in the long run.
As Obama comes to the end of his presidency, his relationship with Merkel has developed into a political symbiosis that few would have expected during his early years in office. It is now fully on the German chancellor to nurture the spirit that Obama and she have created — in the U.S.-German relationship, but also in global affairs writ large.
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