Germany disillusioned with Obama over defence and economic issues

When Barack Obama arrives in Germany today for the first time as US president, there will be no jubilation.David Crossland reports from Berlin

US president John Fitzgerald Kennedy (left) and West Berlin mayor Willy Brandt wave to crowds during the president's visit to Germany in 1963.
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BERLIN // When Barack Obama arrived in Berlin as a US presidential hopeful in 2008, 200,000 Germans turned out and chanted his campaign slogan, "Yes, we can!"

When Mr Obama arrives today for the first time as US president, there will be no such ecstatic jubilation. The audience for his speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate tomorrow afternoon will number a paltry 4,000 invited guests.

His speech will come almost 50 years to the day after John F Kennedy made his famous speech to Berliners from the balcony of the Schöneberg district town hall. But the passion has gone out of Germany's relationship with the US since the end of the Cold War. America is no longer revered here as the benefactor and protector, guaranteeing the safety of West Germany and the very existence of West Berlin, a vulnerable enclave of freedom behind the Iron Curtain.

Germany has become emancipated since its full sovereignty was restored with unification in 1990. And the euro debt crisis since 2010 has reinforced its status as Europe's leading nation not just economically, but politically as well.

"Germany's power has risen enormously in the last four years," the outgoing US ambassador to Germany, Philip Murphy, said last week.

While Mr Obama remains popular in Germany, with 82 per cent saying he has done a good job overall in a recent poll, there is disappointment at his failure to fulfil his promise to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, at his use of drones to target Taliban and Al Qaeda militants and, most recently, at the scandal over American internet surveillance which reportedly also targeted Germans.

Even politicians from the German chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the staunchly pro-American Christian Democratic Union, have been critical of Mr Obama in recent days.

"We should remember that this president Obama as a campaigner voiced severe criticism of the George Bush government over this programme, but in fact it was even stepped up in recent years," said Wolfgang Bosbach, a senior party member.

In a cover story devoted to Mr Obama last week, Der Spiegel magazine described him as "the lost friend".

It has not gone unnoticed that Mr Obama has waited five years since becoming president to make his first state visit. All his predecessors since the end of the Second World War came much sooner during their presidencies.

Some see Mr Obama's tardiness as a fresh sign that his priority is to boost cooperation with fast-growing Asian nations.

"He's trying to build a new network with the new important democratic countries around the globe in the southern hemisphere and that has taken a lot of time and political resources, so Europe is playing second fiddle at the moment," said Michael Werz, an analyst at the Centre for American Progress, a policy think tank.

The German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle predictably waxed lyrical about the US-German relationship on Sunday, saying it was as close as Germany's friendship with France. "We remain grateful to the United States of America for what it has achieved for freedom, peace and for our prosperity after the war and right up to this day," he said.

But it's telling that German officials asked recently to name major policy areas where Germany and the US were co-operating, couldn't immediately think of any.

Mrs Merkel and Mr Obama have never warmed to each other on a personal level. They have openly disagreed on economic policy, with Mrs Merkel rejecting appeals by Mr Obama to abandon her strict austerity-led approach to tackling the euro crisis.

Germany's taxpayers, she insisted, do not want more of their money to be pumped into shoring up ailing southern European nations. She is quite right: they do not. And because she has listened to the man in the street, she is expected to cruise to a third term in the September general election.

But Mr Obama and Mrs Merkel are both pragmatists. He knows that Germany is an indispensable partner in Europe. She knows the US is an indispensable partner in the world.

In their talks in Berlin, Mrs Merkel will seek answers from Mr Obama on America's Prism spying programme. They will also address Syria, where Mr Obama has authorised sending US weapons to rebels in response to what the White House says is evidence that Damascus has crossed a "red line" by using nerve gas.

Mrs Merkel's government, which has consistently shied away from authorising military engagements, staying out of the 2011 intervention in the Libyan uprising, has already made clear that it will not be following suit.

A further focus of the talks will be the US-European free trade initiative, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, aimed at providing a western counterweight to the growing power of emerging economies.

The negotiations illustrate what the trans-Atlantic partnership, once a matter of life and death, has come to: haggling over the use of chlorine for disinfecting chickens.