The United States, Germany and Beyond
Three major meetings will take place in Europe over the next nine days: a meeting of the G-20, a NATO summit and a meeting of the European Union with U.S. President Barack Obama. The week will define the relationship between the United States and Europe and reveal some intra-European relationships. If not a defining moment, the week will certainly be a critical moment in dealing with economic, political and military questions. To be more precise, the meeting will be about U.S.-German relations. Not only is Germany the engine of continental Europe, its policies diverge the most sharply from those of the United States. In some ways, U.S.-German relations have been the core of the U.S.-European relationship, so this marathon of summits will focus on the United States and Germany.
Although the meetings deal with a range of issues -- the economy and Afghanistan chief among them -- the core question on the table will be the relationship between Europe and the United States following the departure of George W. Bush and the arrival of Barack Obama. This is not a trivial question. The European Union and the United States together account for more than half of global gross domestic product.
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How the two interact and cooperate is thus a matter of global significance. Of particular importance will be the U.S. relationship with Germany, since the German economy drives the Continental dynamic. This will be the first significant opportunity to measure the state of that relationship along the entire range of issues requiring cooperation.
Relations under Bush between the United States and the two major European countries, Germany and France, were unpleasant to say the least. There was tremendous enthusiasm throughout most of Europe surrounding Obama's election. Obama ran a campaign partly based on the assertion that one of Bush's greatest mistakes was his failure to align the United States more closely with its European allies, and he said he would change the dynamic of that relationship.
There is no question that Obama and the major European powers want to have a closer relationship. But there is a serious question about expectations. From the European point of view, the problem with Bush was that he did not consult them enough and demanded too much from them. They are looking forward to a relationship with Obama that contains more consultation and fewer demands. But while Obama wants more consultation with the Europeans, this does not mean he will demand less. In fact, one of his campaign themes was that with greater consultation with Europe, the Europeans would be prepared to provide more assistance to the United States. Europe and Obama loved each other, but for very different reasons. The Europeans thought that the United States under Obama would ask less, while Obama thought the Europeans would give more.
The G-20 and Divergent Economic Expectations
Begin with the G-20 summit of 20 of the world's largest economies, which, along with the Americans and Europeans, include the Russians, Chinese and Japanese. The issue is, of course, the handling of the international financial crisis. In contrast to the G-20 meetings held in November 2008, the economic situation has clarified itself substantially -- itself an improvement -- and there are the first faint signs in the United States of what might be the beginning of recovery. There is still tremendous economic pain, but not nearly the panic seen in October.
There is, however, still discord. The most important disagreement is between the United States and United Kingdom on one side and France and Germany on the other. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have selected a strategy that calls for strong economic stimulus at home. The Anglo-American side wants Europe to match it (though the United Kingdom has begun tempering its demands). It fears that the heavily export-oriented Germans in particular will use the demand created by U.S. and British stimulus on their economies to surge German exports into these countries as demand rises. Germany and France would thus get the benefit of the stimulus without footing the bill, enjoying a free ride as the United States builds domestic debt. We must focus here on Germany and the United States because Germany is the center of gravity of the European economy just as the United States is of the Anglo-American bloc. Others are involved, but in the end this comes down to a U.S.-German showdown.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued that Germany could not afford the kind of stimulus promoted by the Anglo-Americans because German demographic problems are such that the proposed stimulus would impose long-term debt on a shrinking population, an untenable situation. Germany and France's position makes perfect sense, whether it is viewed as Merkel has framed it, or more cynically, as Germany taking advantage of actions Obama already has taken. Either way, the fact remains that German and U.S. national interest are not at all the same. As Merkel put it in an interview with The New York Times, "International policy is, for all the friendship and commonality, always also about representing the interests of one's own country."
Paralleling this is the issue of how to deal with the Central European financial crisis. Toxic U.S. assets did not create this problem, internal European practices did. Western European banks took dominant positions in Eastern Europe in the past decade. They began to offer mortgages and other loans at low interest rates denominated in euros, Swiss francs and yen. This was an outstanding deal unless the Polish zloty and the Hungarian forint were to plunge in value, which they have over the past six months. Loan payments soared, massive defaults happened, and Italian, Austrian and Swedish banks were left holding the bag.
The United States viewed this as an internal EU matter, leaving it to European countries to save their own banks. Meanwhile, the Germans -- who had somewhat less exposure than other countries -- helped block a European bailout, arguing that the Central European countries should be dealt with through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was being configured to solve such problems in second-tier countries. From the German point of view, the IMF was simply going to be used for the purpose for which it was created. But Washington saw this as the Germans trying to secure U.S. (and Chinese and Japanese) money to deal with a European problem.
Add to this the complexity of Opel, a German carmaker owned by GM, which Germany wants the United States to bailout but which the United States wants nothing to do with, and the fundamental problem is clear: While both Germany and the United States have a common interest in moving past the crisis, Germany and the United States have very different approaches to the problem. Embedded in this is the hard fact that the United States is much larger than any other national economy, and it will be the U.S. recovery (when it comes) pulling the rest of the world -- particularly the export-oriented economies -- out of the ditch. Given that nothing can change this, the Germans see no reason to put themselves in a more difficult position than they are already in.
The Germans will not yield on the stimulus issue and Obama will not press, since this is not an issue that will resonate politically. But what could be perceived as a massive U.S. donation to the IMF would resonate politically in the United States. The American political system has become increasingly sensitive to the size of the debt being incurred by the Obama administration. A loan at this time to bail out other countries would not sit well, especially when critics would point out that some of the money will be going to bail out European banks in Central Europe.
To be continued
By George Friedman
Copyright 2009 Stratfor.
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