From the start, Berlin’s decision to accept large numbers of Syrian refugees has been followed with great curiosity in the US. But after the Cologne attacks, Americans are asking tougher questions, just like the Germans.
The pictures from Munich this past summer, when hundreds of Germans flocked to the city’s main train station to welcome thousands of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war, made headlines in the US. The amazement in the US and elsewhere certainly wasn’t diminished when Germans even came up with a new word to sum up their new open-arms policy for refugees.
As a result, “Willkommenskultur” went viral, as did the pictures of Germans greeting refugees. Americans watched the developments with astonishment – and by and large with a positive inclination towards a Germany that was apparently not only proving many stereotypes about the country wrong, but was also behaving very differently than the US, which had allowed very few refugees in.
But fast forward three months, and a different picture of the country and its leader Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is generally seen as the driver of Germany’s refugee policy, has emerged in the US, particularly after the Cologne attacks, in which hundreds of young men allegedly from Middle Eastern or North African countries sexually assaulted German women on New Year’s Eve.
“I think the original euphoria, optimism and wonderment with which many Americans regarded the chancellor’s position has been sobered a bit,” said James W. Davis, an American political science professor at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.
“I think most Americans will give a nod for Merkel for her initial impulse to help, but one could probably say that some Americans are questioning the lack of management or thought in her policy,” said Sudha David-Wilp, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office.
Many Americans, argue the trans-Atlantic scholars, still applaud Merkel’s principled stance to allow large numbers of Syrian refugees into Germany, but now wonder whether this policy can actually work.
“I don’t think that the perception of the chancellor has changed that much, but I do think that Americans are asking questions that are quite similar to the questions people are asking in Germany, and that is: How does one integrate 1 million or more Arabs into a European society?” said Davis. “Is this really something that is going to be possible?”
Dismissive remarks about Merkel by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump or a conservative commentator in the New York Times calling for her resignation, however, should not be overestimated. Instead, they should be viewed as playing to an arch-conservative, largely anti-immigrant base in a hotly contested Republican election campaign.
“I don’t think that’s where the mainstream of American opinion is,” said Davis.
Still, the fact that Berlin’s refugee policy still garners this much attention in the US is a sign that it is seen as being significant far beyond Germany.
Chancellor Merkel’s personal clout in the US as a strong leader has not been seriously damaged by the Cologne attacks or by reports about governmental mismanagement in the handling of the refugee situation – yet. “It will, however, if this all goes wrong”, said Davis. “This is her decision. So if it goes wrong she will indeed lose a lot of credibility and respect. But I don’t think we are there yet.”
In the US, then, as in Germany, people now want to know concretely how Berlin wants to handle the refugee situation.
“‘Wir schaffen das’ [‘We can do this,’ Merkel’s famous sentence about the refugee crisis: ed.] sort of rings a little bit hollow right now,” said David-Wilp.