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Our Partnership Deficit

Our Partnership Deficit

By David Ignatius - June 11, 2011

WASHINGTON -- There was some head-scratching in Washington last week at the presentation of the Medal of Freedom to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The previous foreign recipients included Pope John Paul II, who championed the freedom of Eastern Europe; Nelson Mandela, who triumphed over apartheid in South Africa; and Helmut Kohl, who reunited Germany.

Did Merkel, for all her good qualities, really fit in that group?

"Why roll out the red carpet and present this honor to someone who has been a reluctant partner at best?" asks Stephen Szabo, who heads the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Academy in Washington.

The truth is that the medal for Merkel was an aspirational award, similar in many ways to the premature 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for President Obama. It signaled hopes for the future, rather than actual past performance. As Szabo says, the administration decided to "celebrate the partner it wants, not the partner it has." (Full disclosure: I'm a trustee at the GMF, where Szabo works.)

Merkel's visit highlighted an interesting problem for Obama, which I would describe as his "partnership deficit." It's a paradox that this genuinely multilateralist administration, eager to break with the unilateral policymaking of George W. Bush, has had trouble finding reliable partners. Merkel is a case in point, despite all the nice words Obama spoke about her at last week's state dinner.

Defense Secretary Bob Gates slammed home the point in a speech Friday in Berlin where he said the U.S. is tired of fighting for Europeans who "don't want to share the risks and the costs."

This is a world that resents American domination but is also wary of sharing the burden. Our allies don't want to be followers, certainly, but they don't want to share leadership, either. This deficit exists in every region, and it complicates Obama's desire to offload some responsibilities at a time when U.S. financial resources are stretched.

Let's start with Europe: Administration officials want the alliance with Europe to be a "catalyst for global change." But in reality, this has been a relatively moribund period for the trans-Atlantic relationship. Europe is preoccupied with its own problems. It talks about collective action through the European Union in Brussels, but actual policy decisions are still almost entirely centered in the national capitals. The EU today is a study in frustration, more than a catalyst.

The Libya mission illustrates the mixed blessings of shared responsibility. France and Britain are leading the NATO military effort, with the U.S. deliberately taking a back seat after the first week. But the fitful course of the campaign has many analysts wondering whether a successful NATO operation is possible if the U.S isn't at the steering wheel. The lack of German support underscores the frailty of the NATO collective response.

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davidignatius@washpost.com

Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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