US-German Relations Married at the Hip

Germans and Americans are more alike than they think, writes the editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global Edition.
Best of friends?

If you read the German press, as I do, you would think that the state of German-U.S. relations is poor, perhaps even at an all-time low.

As an American who’s lived and worked in Germany for 21 years, I don’t believe this to be the case. One might call this wishful thinking on my part. Perhaps that’s true. I’m not sure. My wife is German, a native of Berlin. Our seven-year-old son speaks to me in German, and I answer him in English.

I see the strengths and weaknesses of both countries and cultures on a daily basis. I have respect for both.

I believe Americans are probably closer mentally and emotionally with Germany than with any other country in Europe, maybe even Britain, our linguistic forefathers. Germans and Americans basically care about the same things: family, fun, sports, work and personal comfort, and not necessarily in that order.

We like things to run smoothly, and we aren’t afraid to voice our displeasure when we think we’ve been treated poorly. We want social justice and a better world for our kids.

In light of the Ukraine conflict, all eyes this week are on Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama, and the status of the bilateral U.S.-German marriage. The current media over-simplification is: The U.S. president wants to pour gasoline on the fire, sending arms to Ukrainian troops. Ms. Merkel wants to buy more time for a European diplomatic initiative to work its course.

I believe this characterization is inaccurate. I am more inclined to think that President Obama and Ms. Merkel are working together in a coordinated fashion, under the radar of their respective media and amped-up political environments.

Ms. Merkel, pushing diplomacy, is the carrot to President Vladimir Putin, the embodiment of a peaceful, face-saving way out of the conflict. President Obama, considering but not committing to arms shipments, is the stick, the threat of greater-than-expected pain and loss to Russia.

Don’t get me wrong, our relationship used to be stronger. Clearly, the NSA revelations – especially those involving wiretapping of Ms. Merkel’s mobile phone by U.S. intelligence – have set us back. The U.S. invasion of Iraq – and the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction there – persuaded many Germans that America was going overboard, pursuing adventure, not just keeping the peace.

The existence of the military prison in Guantanamo Bay – a legal environment outside the boundaries of conventional U.S. jurisprudence – also has come in for sharp criticism here.

But at the end of the day, the U.S. and Germany – and most of the rest of Europe for that matter – are linked at a basic level by their mutual respect for democratic rule and civil rights.

What divides the U.S. and German cultures – and this pains me as a journalist to admit this – is the distortion of our respective media. In essence, the view of the United States portrayed often in Germany – that Americans are gun-toting yahoos intent on global domination – is about as accurate as the U.S. view of Germany, a country of moralizing right-wing and leftist radicals constantly on vacation.

With a foot in both countries, I am constantly reminded how our media are woefully unreliable as guides to better understanding. It’s like trying to look at Germany from a distance through the bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle. Or vica versa . Some Germans actually think Americans really are like the actor family in “Married... With Children.’’ If that’s true, then all Germans are like “Cindy from Marzahn,’’ right?

Wrong. Get what I mean?

Lack of quality contact between our countries and cultures is also a problem.

Most Americans vacation within the United States, or in Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, if they do leave the country. Germans are more avid travelers, and many are America fans, but a lot never make it over to the United States. If they do, some have the typical foreign tourist experience – traveling in a linguistic bubble with little quality contact with locals.

Geographically distant, we rely on images and messages from our media, which we forget are conceived first and foremost for the folks back home. Read a German view on a global event. Then read a U.S. take on the same event. You’ll think they’re talking about a different universe.  But when Americans and Germans actually do come into contact, they tend to like each other, I would argue.

Think Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf. Think Rocket Internet and U.S. venture capital firms. Think Angela and Barack.