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Analysts: Merkel’s Win Means Continuity in German-U.S. Relations

BY Larisa Epatko  September 28, 2009 at 10:30 AM EDT

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Obama at G-8 summit. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives work out final details with coalition partner the Free Democrats, analysts foresee few major foreign policy shifts in the new government and therefore little upheaval in relations with the United States.

Germany’s elections on Sunday handed Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party and the Free Democrats (FDP) enough votes to form a majority in parliament, and enabled Merkel to end her four-year alliance with the center-left Social Democrats.

“Continuity is the buzz word” in terms of German-U.S. relations coming out of the new coalition, according to Jan Techau, head of the European policy studies program at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“Germany won’t substantially change its foreign policy, so it remains predictable and reliable,” he said.

But this continued course also could pose a problem within Germany, Techau added, particularly on Afghan policy. About 4,200 German troops are deployed in Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission, which Merkel and FDP leader Guido Westerwelle support. Nationwide polls, however, show about 60 percent of German citizens want a withdrawal of their troops as insurgency violence in Afghanistan has escalated.

“The country seems to be unwilling to face this difficult truth,” Techau said.

Another bump in the road could come about in the area of economic recovery, which the United States and Germany are approaching from different strategies. In general, the United States thinks Germany should do more on stimulus, but Germany thinks it leads to too much deficit spending.

“Any German chancellor will oppose a U.S. strategy of a weak dollar because it will create a strong euro and thus a weakening German export economy,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, senior director for policy programs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “Merkel will oppose a strategy by which Europe (and Germany) will be recruited to help pay for U.S. deficits.”

But in general, Kleine-Brockhoff said he foresees a warming trend with regard to President Barack Obama. The Social Democrats — the other main party in Merkel’s “grand coalition” for the last four years — had reservations about former President George W. Bush, and to some extent about the depth of the U.S.-German relationship even after Mr. Bush’s term ended, he said.

“They liked Obama, but still did not do much to help him with his agenda,” Kleine-Brockhoff said. “This will change. This will be a more classical Atlanticist coalition.”

Meanwhile, the German government has its own set of challenges on the economic front with the question of tax breaks on the table and efforts to keep unemployment from rising.

Germany faces a major budget deficit due to the global economic crisis, but few ways to deal with it, said Kleine-Brockhoff.

The new coalition “cannot devalue the currency since the Central Bank is Europeanized and Germany does not have control over it,” he said. “It cannot go into debt more than it has already done because there is a constitutional limit to debt.”

If the coalition moves forward on its campaign promise to cut taxes, state incomes would be reduced, leaving the government little option but to implement massive spending cuts.

“If that happens the left will attribute this to the alleged ‘market radicalism’ of the new coalition,” Kleine-Brockhoff said. “The country might see mobilization, street demonstrations, etc., possibly including the trade unions.”

Measures such as spending cuts aimed at keeping the country’s finances afloat would provide ample opportunity for the opposition to attack the economic policies of the new government, Techau agreed, setting the stage for a more politically polarized state to emerge.

Editor’s Note: The reporting from Germany was supported in part by the Radio Television Digital News Foundation and the RIAS Berlin Commission.