G-7 a chance to mend bond
Obama and Merkel’s planned stroll won’t be just a walk in the park
MUNICH, Germany — When President Obama arrives in Germany this weekend for the annual meeting of the heads of the world’s largest economic powers, he plans only a single extended, one-on-one get-together, a stroll through a picturesque Bavarian village with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Obama and Merkel plan to walk the streets of Krun, chat with villagers and share a meal of wurst and sauerkraut, an especially leisurely afternoon for a president who often skips lunch on trips to fit in morework.
The time devoted to Merkel reflects more than just personal affinity and a desire to show courtesy to the host of this year’s Group of 7 industrialized nations’ summit.
On many of the issues on the summit’s agenda — responding to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves against Ukraine, finding a solution for the economic troubles of Greece, confronting Iran over its nuclear program, bolstering Iraq’s government in the fight against Islamic State militants — Merkel has become Europe’s most important voice and a key U.S. ally.
“Merkel is the European leader he [Obama] openly admits he’s been probably the closest to,” said Julianne Smith, a former advisor on national security issues to Vice President Joe Biden. And yet, she said, “that relationship has really weathered a number of storms over the last year.”
The biggest storm was the disclosure in October 2013 that the U.S. had been eavesdropping on Merkel’s telephone calls for at least three years. The news surprised and angered the chancellor, who grew up under East Germany’s repressive communist government.
“Trust must now be built anew,” she declared.
Obama spent much of the last year on that rebuilding effort, apologizing to Merkel and putting new policies in place to ban eavesdropping on the leaders of key allied governments, particularly the Germans.
But the two battle-weary leaders — the longest-serving heads of government at theweekend summit— have little choice but to work together on the vexing challenges they face, and the summit could provide an opportunity to put the tension behind them.
The president “continues to reach out to her. I think they still trust each other. They have very pragmatic approaches to problem solving,” said Smith, who is now director of Strategy and Statecraft at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington policy think tank. “So, there’s not a lot of daylight there on the challenges of the day.”
At the top of Obama’s agenda with the German leader is the conflict with Russia over its aggressive moves in neighboring Ukraine. This summit is the annualmeeting of what used to be called the Group of 8, when it included Russia. After Moscow’s takeoverof Crimea last year, Putin was disinvited, and this will be the second summit meeting without him.
Obama plans to encourage his six fellow leaders to continue sanctions on Russia, part of what he describes as a slow and steady pressure pushing down the Russian economy.
He and Merkel will voice their support for full implementation of a cease-fire plan for Ukraine reached in February but frequently violated. The lingering question is how long towait for its terms to be fulfilled and what to do in the meantime.
Merkel has opposed providing arms to the Ukrainian government in its fight against Russia-backed separatists. She worries that the weapons would lead to a wider war. Many of Obama’s advisors support broader military aid, although the president has left the issue unresolved.
The two will also talk about the future of international economics for Ukraine, which is nearly bankrupt.
With a June 30 deadline to finish nuclear talks with Iran, the summit also will be the last opportunity for Obama to sit down with several key partners in the negotiations. Along with Merkel, Obama plans to meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande to “make sure that we are in lock step,” one senior Obama advisor said, speaking anonymously to comment on diplomatic talks.
The group will also discuss events in Iraq and the fight against Islamic State. Merkel invited Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi to come and discuss strategy.
Obama hopes to convince the other leaders that the U.S.-led air campaign in Iraq, along with efforts to train and equip Iraqi security forces, will succeed in pushing back the militants. None of the allies are interested in sending ground troops, although many Pentagon officials are skeptical of the Iraqi forces’ willingness to stand and fight.
As Obama and Merkel stroll, however, the issue of U.S. covert operations and electronic surveillance in Germany will continue to linger in the background.
Recent reports about Germany’s intelligence agency, its close cooperation with U.S. intelligence and its collection of information on German companies have raised concern among Germans, threatening Merkel’s popularity, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“This issue remains very live and very potent for political purposes,” Conley said. “And in some ways, it is being used as a very overt attempt to, I believe, weaken the chancellor and all that she’s doing, whether that’s vis-a-vis Russia or in other areas.”
With his own interests at stake, Obama needs to ease the friendship past the rocky patch.
The visit to Krun is “not just about the relationship between the president and Merkel,” said Charlie Kupchan, senior director for European Affairs in Obama’s National Security Council. It’s about “showcasing” the strong bonds between the two leaders and their countries.
BALLOONS with images of President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel float in Dresden, Germany. The Group of 7 summit is a chance for the key allies to put recent tensions behind them.