Ich Bin Ein Berliner?

Obama got a rapturous welcome as a candidate in Berlin. But will the Germans show him any love as president? It’s increasingly likely they might not.

Germans love Barack Obama. When the aspiring presidential candidate traveled to Berlin in July of last year, the crowd of two hundred thousand that greeted him at Berlin's Tiergarten was larger and more electrifying than Germany's politicians would have drawn. On inauguration day, no nation in Europe celebrated more wildly or had higher hopes for the young president's success on the staggering array of world problems he will inherit than Germany.

And yet, if things continue as they are, it could well be Germany-not Iran, Russia, or Palestine-that hands President Obama his first major setback. At the NATO summit in April, the president's new team will find itself seated across the table from a German ally that is determined to block U.S. aims on nearly every important question facing the alliance. Coming just ten weeks after the inauguration, this summit will be Mr. Obama's first high-profile negotiation with Germany and other key European allies. It needs to be a success. Unless the two countries act now to find mutually-agreeable middle ground, our new president could suffer a costly setback at just the moment when the West needs unity more than ever to confront bigger problems further afield.

While a number of issues require attention, the most serious by far is the question of how to manage NATO's troubled eastern flank. In the waning days of the Bush administration, Washington and Berlin were repeatedly at loggerheads over whether, when and how to begin the process of NATO accession for Ukraine and Georgia. In keeping with longstanding U.S. policy, Washington favored offering Membership Action Plans (MAP) to those two former-Soviet satellites as a way of expanding the zone of democracy and stability, and dissuading Russian revisionism. By contrast, Berlin has favored a more cautious course. It is wary of adding fresh security commitments to an already beleaguered alliance, and of provoking a Russia, with which it enjoys a thriving politico-business relationship.

The opening move came on the eve of last April's NATO summit in Bucharest when former-President Bush appeared at a news conference in Kiev with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and promised U.S. support for Ukraine's NATO membership bid. German officials were taken aback. Only weeks before, they said, the United States had agreed not to move forward with MAP anytime soon. As the ensuing summit unfolded, Berlin fought Washington and its pro-enlargement central European allies to a standstill, diluting the U.S. proposal to a vague, open-ended statement affirming NATO's intention to let the two easterners in-eventually.

Then came the Russian invasion of Georgia. Each capital viewed the war as a validation of its position on MAP. To the Americans, it showed that Russia was back and needed to be contained; to the Germans, it showed that Russia was back and needed to be respected. In the presidential debates, then-candidate Obama called for an immediate offer of MAP to Georgia. By contrast, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in what looked to many like a bow to Moscow, called for a probe into the causes of the war.

In the staring contest that followed, the United States was the first to blink. Late-term Bush officials realized that the goal of eastern enlargement simply could not be achieved under the prevailing political circumstances. Prior to the December 2008 NATO foreign ministers meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that MAP for Ukraine and Georgia was off the table. In an effort to depoliticize the issue, U.S. officials went into the meeting with a stripped-down goal of reaffirming the statement from Bucharest-a major concession for an administration that had originally planned a full-court press on MAP before leaving office.

But to everyone's surprise, Berlin refused this olive branch. Many German officials suspected that Washington was dropping MAP in order to arrive at membership through a faster, backdoor process. Rather than seizing the opportunity to defuse the MAP imbroglio gracefully, the Germans followed a course of intransigence. Vaguely reaffirming Bucharest may not be enough, they said; it must be made clear that MAP would have been the next step for Ukraine and Georgia in the normal course of things . . . but the two would-be candidates are not ready.

To some U.S. observers, it seemed as if Germany had gone into the meeting determined to provoke a public row. Perhaps Berlin wanted one last parting volley at the Bush administration. Perhaps it will approach the matter differently with Obama.

Or perhaps not. With parliamentary elections fast approaching, some analysts believe that Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who is challenging Angela Merkel for the chancellor's seat, will seek to make electoral hay by looking for fresh opportunities to stand up to the United States. After the December meeting, some U.S. observers came away worried that Berlin might persist with its stubborn stand at the next summit, putting the new administration on the defensive and weakening Western unity on the eve of critical negotiations with Iran.

That result is avoidable. President Obama would be well advised to immediately send an interagency team to Berlin whose sole purpose is to find a mutually-acceptable middle ground on MAP ahead of the April summit. With only ten weeks available, this conversation needs to be bilateral in format and focused strictly on one goal: putting the issue, not just of MAP, but of eastern enlargement in general, on ice for the foreseeable future in order to allow the new administration to focus on other, more pressing challenges elsewhere. 

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