The well-timed visit of German President Gauck to the US and his meeting with President Obama underscore the importance of US-German ties for both countries. But underneath the surface not everything is rosy.
The planning staff of President Joachim Gauck could not have chosen a better destination than Philadelphia for Germany’s head of state to start his first official visit to the United States exactly 25 years after the country’s unification. Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, for Americans, stands as a symbol for the country’s hard-won freedom after the Revolutionary War against Britain. It was also where – on October 6, 1683 – a first group of Mennonite settlers from Krefeld founded Germantown – today, a neighborhood of the city.
But there is also another German connection. It comes via Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, a large historic bell that first served as an icon of US freedom and independence, but during the Cold War became a larger symbol of the struggle for freedom from communist rule in Eastern Europe. In 1950, Berlin received its own Freedom Bell, an American gift still located in what then was the city hall of West Berlin.
Rich with symbolism
“That’s a pretty powerful image,” said Scott Lucas, a professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham.
“There is a big emphasis in underlining the linkages between Germany and the United States on the issue of freedom and liberty,” noted Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. For President Gauck, a former pastor and civil rights activist in East Germany, freedom and liberty have a very personal relevance, he added. “That’s why he goes to Philadelphia.”
But beyond the reflection on Germany’s unification and America’s indispensable role in it in Philadelphia, Gauck will also meet US President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and important members of Congress in Washington – not the norm for a head of state with a largely ceremonial role.
“In many ways the Germans are the de-facto leader of Europe despite the fact that the British would like to claim the role,” said Lucas. That’s why, “it makes sense for every American administration to use the symbolic and informal ways to strengthen that relationship,” explained Janning.
But while both Germans and Americans routinely pay lip-service to the importance of German-American relations, the reality often does not live up to the highfalutin’ rhetoric so often employed.
“The question for me besides all the symbolism is what is the significance of German-US ties now,” said Lucas. Notwithstanding Berlin’s leading role in the Ukraine and Greek crises, Germany is still looking to find its role in the 21st century and has not been able to express a clear vision of what European power can and should do, he said.
Similarly, Germans and Europeans are confused about the wisdom and future of US foreign policy, not just under George W. Bush, but also under Barack Obama, particularly in the Middle East, said Janning. The NSA spying scandal also did not help to rebuild lost trust.
Gap between rhetoric and reality
“So the relationship is underperforming, measured against the significance both countries assign to the other side,” said Janning.
President Gauck, however, due to the largely symbolic role he plays in German politics, won’t be able to improve the alleged underperformance of the German-American relationship. But if the past is any indicator, he may not shy away from highlighting the deficits and offering suggestions what to do about it.