By Peter A. Buxbaum

In December 1962, President John F Kennedy (JFK) declared that the US has a special relationship with two countries: Great Britain and Israel. Clearly, these relationships are not cut from the same cloth. While the relationship with the UK is based on ancestry, history and language, the one with Israel is thought to be a moral commitment.

A special relationship with Germany would be of a third variety. It would involve an acknowledgement of Germany's political, military and economic power and its willingness to play important roles in the projection of Western power in places like Afghanistan. It could also come to counterbalance the growing economic relationship between Germany and China. The New York Times reported recently that a visit to Germany by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao concluded not only with billions of euros in trade deals but also with an agreement "to establish special government consultations."

JFK famously identified with Berliners when that city was a key outpost on the frontline of the Cold War. Echoing Kennedy, Barack Obama, when he was running for president in 2008, also made a key speech with Berlin as his backdrop. But times have changed. No longer is Berlin a besieged city in need of US help. Instead, the US may be the one looking across the pond for support.

Berlin…or Brussels?

But is a special relationship necessary or desirable? Proponents point to the strong relationship that exists between the two countries, encompassing commerce, diplomacy and military cooperation. Others say the US should focus its efforts on the EU, and not single out one of its members for special attention.

"I think the question for the United States," as Daniel Hamilton, executive director of the Center for Trans-Atlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former US State Department official, told ISN Insights, "is whether we can work with the Germans so that they can step up even more on a range of issues that the United States alone is unlikely to tackle successfully."

For the last 20 years, Germany had to prioritize its problems with reunification. "I think only now is [Germany] emerging in terms of thinking about what [its] role in the world will be," said Hamilton. "That's the question for the United States. Can we engage Europe's central power, and can we harness the potential of the transatlantic relationship to deal with rising powers elsewhere?"

"If the question is a special relationship à la the US and Britain or the US and Israel, then that kind of relationship is neither desirable nor feasible," Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University and former director for European affairs at the National Security Council, told ISN Insights. "It's not desirable because I think the United States should work with the EU as a collective entity, not with individual EU member states. I don't think it's feasible, because with the British, we've got a historic ancestral relationship that goes back several hundred years, and the British have generally lined up with the United States against Germany throughout the last century. And with Israel, there's a very strong moral connection. Those conditions don't exist with Germany."

Neither Germany nor Britain alone is big enough to be the partner the US needs, according to Kupchan. "So I would say, let's build a special relationship with Europe," he added.

Hamilton acknowledges that "the European Union is the most important organization in the world to which the United States does not belong." "Germany is at the center of this historic experiment," he added, "but it's an experiment. It has taken decades for very diverse European countries to figure out how to work together and how to take in a whole new pack of countries from Eastern and Central Europe. That will take considerably more time. So I don't think the United States realistically – when it comes down to decisions on a day-by-day basis – can go to Brussels and think that they'll get an answer, because Brussels often doesn't deliver."

Kupchan is skeptical about whether Germany will want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the US in projecting the hard power that advocates of a special relationship presumably crave. "There remains a limited appetite in Germany for putting troops in harm's way," he said. "Roughly two-thirds of the German population opposes the war in Afghanistan and the presence of German troops in that war. I think that raises questions about whether Germany can be America's go-to partner when it comes to projecting power to the Middle East or South Asia."

The US is better off, Kupchan argued, relying its more traditional allies like the British and the French when it comes to support for military adventures.

But Hamilton pointed out that there are more German troops deployed around the world than British or French. He also believes that a special relationship need not be limited to military cooperation, but that the US has the opportunity to leverage Germany's economic might on a range of foreign policy and other global issues.

The crux of the issue is whether the US should ditch Brussels in favor of Berlin or whether it should emphasize its relationship with the EU over Germany. "The US has to have both," said Kupchan. "You have to deal with the national capitals because they still have a lot of power, but you also need to go to Brussels, partly because [those capitals] do have power in Brussels, but also because it's in the American interest to do what it can to breathe life into the European project."

For Hamilton, Brussels might be an important destination for trade policy, but Berlin should be the focal point on most other military, diplomatic and economic issues. "But even on trade policy," he added, "if you look at the last couple rounds of multilateral trade negotiations, in the end, it was Germany and the United States getting agreement among all the other EU countries to make the deal. It was Germany that had the influence and tipped the balance to get the deal done."


Peter A Buxbaum, a Washington, DC-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for 15 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Defense Technology International, Homeland Security and Computerworld. He holds a Juris doctorate from Temple University and a Bachelor's in political science and economics from Columbia University. His website is

- Originally published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)


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