Obama and the Two Germanies

Der Spiegel reports on an internal split within Germany’s governing coalition regarding how to engage with President Obama, with Chancellor Angela Merkel adopting a wait-and-see attitude and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier more eager to please. Apparently, for their part, Obama and Sec. of State Hillary Clinton set a new tone in their respective introductory conversations with their German counterparts, with the most marked difference from the Bush administration being that Obama and Clinton actually paused after speaking to hear what their interlocuters had to say.

According to the Spiegel article, Steinmeier has already drawn up a list of Iranian banks and businesses to be added to any further rounds of strengthened sanctions, but Merkel has in essence put it on ice. Obama’s commitments to free trade and Germany’s willingness to accept prisoners from Gitmo are also on Merkel’s “To be continued” list.

From the perspective of American interests, Steinmeier’s approach is obviously preferable. But from the perspective of German interests, I’ve got a hunch Merkel might be playing a savvy hand here. Trying to compete with France and England in the bidding war for who will be Obama’s European best friend will just cheapen Germany’s value as a partner. Eventually Obama will need German support, and when that time comes, a cordial but healthily circumspect posture will pay dividends.