Change is coming to America. An African-American will be President for the first time in the country’s history, which marks the beginning of a new era. However, it is not merely America that voted for change. According to an online poll conducted by the Economist, the vast majority of the world supported Barack Obama. Co-publisher of Die Zeit, Josef Joffe, has a point: this was a world election with a world candidate.
But what can this world candidate do for Germany? In light of the current crisis in the US the questions must be reversed: what can Germany do for the United States?
The President-elect takes over a country in its worst crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Few presidents had to confront such a wide and complex field of problems. What is more is that due to the oversized and rapidly growing budget deficit Obama will only have limited resources at his disposal. Starting with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the financial crisis, an ailing infrastructure and the desperately needed health care reform, the future president will have to set clear priorities and focus primarily on American problems. Ironically, the McCain campaign slogan “Country First” will be the motto of the Obama Administration.
What does this mean for Germany? For better or worse, it means the German government will have to refrain from exaggerated expectations and demands and prepare for precise demands from the United States instead. Since the U.S. will have fewer resources at its disposal to fulfil a global leadership role in international relations, Germany will soon face a new burden-sharing debate in the coming months. Precisely, this will entail demands for more financial and civilian efforts for reconstruction in Afghanistan and possibly even Iraq. Regarding Iran, Obama has frequently said that he will enter into dialogue with the government in Teheran. In turn, he may ask Germany to apply stronger economic sanctions. Another controversy can be expected at the NATO Summit in Strasbourg/Kehl in April 2009 where the alliance will debate its future role and purpose. There may also be more protectionism in trade relations under a democratic Congress. In light of continued economic downturn, this would hurt cooperation in the Transatlantic Economic Council (TEC). A new beginning can rightly be expected with regard to energy and climate change policy. However, the drop in the price of oil and still existing domestic scepticism will make it more difficult to commit the U.S. to concrete climate targets at Copenhagen next year.
Seen from this perspective, the outlook on the forthcoming era in transatlantic relations looks rather bleak. Making it worse, Germany will face national elections next year. The continuation of pragmatic cooperation between Germany and the United States will be the most likely outcome from this election. However, a new cooperative style of engagement and outreach will dominate future U.S. foreign policy. Thus, it is all the more important to formulate realistic expectations and demands regarding the next administration in order to avoid disappointment and conflict. Barack Obama is not a redeemer for Germany and Europe. First and foremost, he is responsible for dealing with America’s problems and interests and will act accordingly. Germany will have to take the initiative and offer concrete proposals for cooperation. This could be in the financial sector and climate change policy. Also in the area of security, Berlin should offer support for the President-elect Barack Obama in order to make it easier for him to secure domestic support for his open and multilateral course. This will matter in the months and years ahead.
Simon Koschut is the program officer of the Transatlantic Relations Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Sojna Bonin: The End of an Era Gives Rise to a New Order
- Eckart von Klaeden: Europe Needs a Strong American President!
- From the Editorial Team: A New Day Rising After Election Night