U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Berlin this week is many things.
On the one hand, it's a long overdue investment in one of America's most important bilateral relationships. It's a thinly veiled gesture of support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her campaign for reelection this September. And it's an attempt to restore some of the old magic with Europeans who feel betrayed by the man who dared to ignore them on Guantanamo, drone warfare, and climate change.
But, on the other hand, Obama's trip is also a desperate effort to find a partner in Europe with whom the United States can finally talk serious geopolitics. America is starting to realize that, even in the age of the pivot to Asia, it still needs Europeans to get stuff done on a global scale.
The United States needs Europe to establish a transatlantic free trade area, the geopolitical goal of which is to preserve some of the West's global preeminence. It needs Europe in the Middle East to resolve the Iran and Israel-Palestine questions, and to have some kind of consolidated approach to Syria. It needs Europeans to invest their fair share in the defense burden-sharing scheme called NATO, America's only semifunctioning multilateral alliance. And it needs Europe to reinvent the institutions that govern the liberal world order: the G20, IMF, World Bank, and perhaps even the UN.
The problem is that America feels increasingly uneasy about its two traditional geopolitical counterparts in Europe, France and the UK. U.S. diplomats say this behind closed doors with shocking directness. France is well on the way to ruining itself economically, jettisoning any claim to geopolitical relevance. France's largely irrelevant nuclear arms and UN veto power just don't cut it any more as the country loses its panache.
The same goes for Britain, which is hemorrhaging military capabilities and is firmly in the grip of a Little England spasm that neuters the country's otherwise magnificent strategic culture.
So Obama is left with Germany, the "reluctant hegemon." That's not a fun position to be in because it's highly unlikely that Germany will turn into the kind of player that the United States wants and needs. As former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer stated last week with his trademark pessimism at the Wrocław Global Forum: "Don't expect that strategic leadership will come from Germany. This is not only a problem of the present coalition. It would not change even if the opposition took over."
The musings about why this is the case are plentiful. History, laziness, isolationism, provincialism, an allergy to all things military-all of these play a role and are well-documented. But there is one factor that is often overlooked, despite its huge importance in this context: the very nature of strategic decisionmaking, which runs counter to all postwar German instincts.