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Europeans Await 'President' Obama With Some Nervousness

Interviewee: William Drozdiak, President, American Council on Germany
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
December 23, 2008

William M. Drozdiak, head of the American Council on Germany, says that he finds Europeans, while "universally pleased" by Barack Obama's election, now showing some apprehension on some issues, like whether Obama will demand that Europeans countries take in detainees from Guantanamo, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) increase its military commitment to Afghanistan, and that Europe agree on a universal economic stimulus package with the United States.

There's roughly a month to go before Barack Obama becomes president of the United States. The Europeans seemed universally pleased when he was elected, but in the interim are there any concerns building up in Europe on whether they're going to be able to deliver their part of any bargain with a new U.S. administration, or whether that administration will be too demanding of them? What's the mood right now?

There's excitement and enthusiasm about his election, but as you indicated, some apprehension among European leaders about how much responsibility they will be asked to shoulder. I spent the past few weeks in Germany and there is some nervousness about how much more they're going to be asked to do in Afghanistan. The German Bundestag [parliament] recently approved the sending of one thousand more troops, and so that brings Germany up to about 4,500 troops, which is the third-biggest contingent there (PDF). But the government imposed caveats that limit their involvement in the fighting in southern Afghanistan, much to the consternation of the United States and some other allies. Afghanistan has been for Germany a big leap forward, in the post-war era. Because of the Nazi past, there were strict limits on ever sending troops outside Germany's borders. Now they find themselves in a shooting war in Afghanistan.

Talking about Germany, in the New York Times on December 15, Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, was really quite unhappy with Chancellor Angela Merkel's position of not supporting a European stimulus plan for the whole European Union. Has she moderated her position at all?

There are two aspects. Germany has just lowered the value added tax (VAT) and they claim this amounts to about a $7 billion or $8 billion stimulus. But both Merkel, and her Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck, have been greatly at odds with their European partners, and they've accused British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for example, of just throwing money senselessly at the problem. What Merkel has agreed to over the weekend, after coming under enormous pressure from her European partners at a summit in Brussels Thursday and Friday [December 11 and 12], is to reconsider some kind of investment or stimulus package early in January. She says she wants to see what Obama will put forward then, and try to come up with a transatlantic, or U.S.-European package that would get the global economy moving again.

Are there any plans for an early meeting with Obama by the Europeans, or is it too soon?

"Unless Germany does something more substantial and quickly to actively stimulate the economy, it's going to drag down the rest of Europe."

It's shaping up as a pretty active diplomatic agenda in the first six months of Obama's administration. He already has on his calendar several events. He will make a trip to Europe early in April to attend a follow-up meeting to the G-20 [major economies] in London on April 2, and on April 3 and 4 he will attend the sixtieth anniversary summit  of NATO leaders, which will be held in Baden, Germany and Strasbourg, France. In June he'll come back to Europe for a G8 summit meeting which will take place in Italy, and also a U.S.-EU summit which will take place in Prague or Brussels. Obviously Afghanistan will feature high on the NATO agenda, but they will also be talking about nuclear disarmament initiatives with Russia, and how they come up with a new policy regarding how to deal with Russia. It will also be an opportunity to air differences over the future of NATO enlargement.

On other issues that Obama will be dealing with, I guess the anticipated closing of the Guantanamo detention center is one that would be widely applauded, but as people have said, there are problems involved, such as where the current detainees will be sent. The Americans would like the Europeans to take in some of the detainees who are not deemed particularly dangerous, but whose home countries don't want them.

Germany is one of the countries with some nervousness about whether they want to take back some of these detainees, and Britain of course, because they have some still on trial, and uncertainty on where they would keep them in the meantime. Europeans think this is something that would make a lot of difficulty for them, and they are hesitant to make any commitments until the United States shuts down Guantanamo, and decides how many of them will be put on trial in the United States and how many will have to be sent back overseas.

On the economy in Europe, do you sense a real slowdown? Are people really worried?

The concern is that in the next six months or so the downturn is really going to hit very hard. Now in Germany, Europe's most important exporting country, they are just starting to feel the cutbacks in orders all over, whether it be the United States, and other European countries, or China, that previously were very lucrative markets. And now there's a downturn in these other countries as well.  The German automobile industry is starting to feel the heat. While they have made a lot of progress in recent years in reducing unemployment from 5 million to 3 million, they now fear that unemployment is going to take off at a very precarious time politically, because Germany is entering a very heated political campaign ahead of a national election, which will take place in September 2009. Currently in Germany there is a grand coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. And the Social Democrats will be running Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier against Merkel, so you're going to have a government basically at odds with itself, with the two major parties running against each other in this election campaign. The biggest issue will be the economy, and unless Germany does something more substantial and quickly to actively stimulate the economy, it's going to drag down the rest of Europe.

On "the missile radar system planned to deter Iranian missiles ... Western Europe is very concerned about it. First of all, they don't think the technology is there yet. And secondly, they're not sure the threat from Iran really exists."

Is there really a fierce debate in Germany on just what Germany should be doing? In other words, everywhere else there seems to be a consensus that there needs to be stimulus spending, whereas I gather Merkel's government is opposed to that plan. But within the government are there other people urging a different policy?

The government is at a loss for what to do. In the United States there's the talk about infrastructure and a government stimulus package because our roads and bridges are in dire need of repair. Germany has a pretty good infrastructure as anybody can tell driving along these fancy new autobahns. Also, the German consumer has a very high savings rate. If they did make some kind of an income tax cut, people would probably just sit on the money and put it in the bank, so there wouldn't be much of a consumer binge which would help stimulate the economy. So the government is trying to figure out just what would be the best approach, and that's why it wants to coordinate something on a global basis, working with the United States. For that, they have to wait until Obama takes office, and Merkel will be hoping that by then she'd come up with a better idea. She's coming under a lot of criticism for being so tentative in her leadership, and that may start to hurt her in public opinion polls.

Are the Europeans expecting a new approach to Russia from the Obama administration?

They're curious as to what Obama's differences in policies will be from the Bush administration. There was some dispute, particularly between Germany and the Bush administration, on how fast to move on NATO enlargement, particularly in bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. The Germans, who were backed by Britain and France, felt that this was needlessly provocative to Moscow. They say that if they had gone along with the Bush administration at a NATO summit last April in Bucharest, and had brought in Georgia, the NATO allies would have found themselves on the brink of war with Russia during the Russian-Georgian conflict over the summer. There is a lot of second guessing as to whether it would be a wise move to bring in Georgia and Ukraine, particularly in the case of Ukraine where half the country seems opposed.

The other big issue is the missile radar system planned to deter Iranian missiles to be built in Poland and in the Czech Republic. Western Europe is very concerned about it. First of all, they don't think the technology is there yet. And secondly, they're not sure the threat from Iran really exists. The Czechs and the Poles, at least their governments, say they want this deployment because they're not necessarily convinced that the other NATO allies will come to their aid if they were challenged by Russia, and they see this as a concrete or tangible bind that the United States will be there for them.

Obama has said he would proceed with this missile system if the technology is proven. I don't know where that stands, we'll have to wait.

It'll also be tied up in negotiations with the Russians, such as if the Russians are forthcoming in other areas, like nuclear disarmament initiatives, which will be important in the context of nuclear nonproliferation, which calls on Russia and the United States to make deep cuts in their nuclear arsenals in return for other countries foreswearing the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Nothing has really been accomplished on that front in the last eight years. With the START Treaty, the Strategy Arms Reduction Treaty, due  to expire at the end of 2009, they need to put something new into place. That's what makes these negotiations rather urgent. When this begins, then these other issues will come to the fore. And in return for greater cooperation on nuclear arms cuts, the Russians may demand that the United States slow down the process of NATO enlargement, and perhaps abandon the idea of deploying the missile radar systems.

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