June 22, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Matthew Stevenson:
If international statecraft came of age with ultimata, stern notes between European capitals, or correspondence among related monarchs, the new diplomacy is something closer to speed dating, with brief encounters at summits, followed, no doubt, by a flurry of text messages, if not changes to national Facebook status.
Past diplomatic relationships fell into the category of “It’s complicated.”
In the case of President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, at least according to a gushing joint profile in the New York Times, they would seem to be “in a relationship.”
The June 16-17, 2012 edition of International Herald Tribune, under the headline “A friendship cultivated through crisis,” shows a tuxedoed Obama giving a toast to a ball-gowned Ms. Merkel, as if the Vows section had taken over the front page. The online article dated June 15, 2012 is entitled: In Euro Crisis, Obama Looks to Merkel, although readers are spared a cloying video of how they met.
The article, by Mark Landler in Washington and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin, was written in anticipation of the G-20 summit in Mexico, although it appears that the president’s publicity agents had a hand with the subtitles.
You would think that with such kid-glove treatment the Times might come up with appropriate new bylines, such as “choreographed by…” or “based on the suggestions of…” Then it could list credits for the story, like those that follow movies.
The point of the article is that Obama’s go-to person on the Eurozone crisis is Merkel, who, in turn (and here the writers might have read the prompt cards of the re-election staff), has recognized that the American president has the economic vision of Adam Smith and the conversational brilliance of John Maynard Keynes—even if she remains firmly in the monetary camp of Milton Friedman.
There is no reason why the Times should not publish a piece, in anticipation of an economic meeting, on the relationship between the U.S. president and the German chancellor. But this one mixes the lives of the political saints with some of those photographs from the “Dating Game,” when happy couples (and their chaperone) would come back to show pictures of their date.
Rather than delve into the tedious issues of Greek insolvency, Spanish bank balance sheets, or German diplomatic history (Tom Lehrer: “We taught them a lesson in 1918, and they’ve hardly bothered us since then”), the article dwells on these hard-hitting reportorial facts:
It is not that Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel have failed to show each other warmth. The high point came last year when he awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At a state dinner in the Rose Garden, she was served apple strudel and serenaded under the stars by James Taylor. His song: “You’ve Got a Friend.”
Ms. Merkel eschewed her practical pantsuit for a black evening gown. Mr. Obama and Ms. Merkel toasted each other — she with red wine, he with white. At the end of the evening, an official said, she turned to her host. “The next time you come to Germany,” a beaming Ms. Merkel said, “you can speak at any gate you want.”
Not only is the piece filled with accounts of loving moments from the Obama-Merkel enchantment—at Camp David, they sat together at a picnic table; near Weimar, Barack the Brave protected her from “jostling photographers”—but the accompanying slide show in the online edition (Politically At-Odds, Personal Pals) is worthy of a furtive weekend in Paris between Hollywood A-Listers.
The first slide shows Obama giving Merkel a goodnight hug in front of what looks like the girl’s cabin at Camp David. Clearly he (along with his photographer) has walked her home from the dance, but has no intention of inviting himself in for a nightcap. (Think of your own first date, with your dad along to take pictures.)
Next up, the happy couple is strolling through the camp woods with Obama, ever the gentleman, carrying his suit jacket, just in case he might need to cover a puddle on their path.
Other pictures show them performing in a camp play (a spoof, “The Wizards of Id,” about how summits revolve around the group pictures), at formal state dinners, and arm-in-arm after some tough summiting. (It’s like canyoning, except you float on press releases.)
In the pictures, the message is that the Obama-Merkel personal and political bonds far outweigh any dreary thoughts that might come to the small minds of the British prime minister or the Spanish president.
In one photograph, then French President Nicolas Sarkozy has the dejected look of someone dumped by his girlfriend, as the happy campers appear to be talking exclusively and passionately—no doubt about the gold standard, marginal utility, and how the tariff question determined the outcome of the 1828 election.
The reason for the polmance between Obama and Merkel, according to one source, is that: “They’re both kind of outsiders: an African-American from Hawaii and a woman from East Germany.”
This observation comes from Benjamin J. Rhodes, who has the Orwellian Groupthink title “deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.” One wonders if all his communications are “strategic” or if he only briefs the press on things like the strategies of the Franco-Prussian War? (Note to NYT Ed.: Bismarck’s warm friendship with Napoleon III ended badly at Sedan.)
The strategic message communicated in the Times piece is that Obama had the good sense to pick Merkel as his European fixer. Lucky for all of us that he didn’t catch the eye of the Irish finance minister.
Not only is Merkel the only adult in the debt-restructuring rooms, but she has even more qualifications for diplomatic greatness because of her shrewd judgment in recognizing leadership genius in Obama. The Times reports:
It was a reference to their awkward start in July 2008, when Mr. Obama, then a candidate for president seeking to bolster his foreign policy credentials, sought to deliver a speech before the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Ms. Merkel let it be known that she frowned on his plan to use a site so freighted with historical significance for Germans. Mr. Obama’s aides moved the speech.
The contretemps made headlines, but their private meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin went better. Ms. Merkel was surprised, aides said, by how far the young senator was from the political celebrity the German media had portrayed. Ms. Merkel found Mr. Obama to be, as she is, a detail-oriented wonk.
Is the source for these gushing impressions some dating Web site, one only available to heads of states (possibly called Alliances or International ♥ffairs)?
Can’t you see the profile of “OstAngela1954”? “What can I say about myself? I am a Lutherunist (parents were Lutherans, teachers were Communists☺). I used to be involved with this wormy Frenchman. Looking for someone who will be with me as they burn my effigy in Athens. Sorry, no inflationists.”
Funny that she ended up with someone whose profile reads: “Am into golf, basketball, fund-raising, celebrities, bailouts, health care, drones, and 60 Minutes (but only when I am on it). Checked out the summit in Los Cabos. Truly awesome.”
Because one of Ms. Merkel’s predecessors, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, lived by the creed that “nations do not have friends, only interests,” it’s not surprising that the summit couple occasionally has spats and disagreements. Fortunately, the Times had two reporters to track down the details of any differences between the United States and Germany, informing its readers:
For all their disagreements over Europe, the two have “exactly the same view” on other thorny issues, from China and Russia to Iran and Afghanistan, said Klaus Scharioth, the German ambassador to Washington until last year.
At times, they can appear like an old couple ribbing each other about their idiosyncrasies. Walking through the White House together on a visit she made after the Buchenwald trip, Mr. Obama joked with the often-dour Ms. Merkel about her re-election campaign.
“Ah, you’ve already won,” a wireless television microphone picked up Mr. Obama telling her. “I don’t know what you always worry about.”
Because the Times is always looking for pay-wall opportunities, as a way to beef up the sagging bottom line, maybe the reprint rights to some of its articles, like this one, could be sold to the Hallmark Corporation?
The slideshow photographs would make perfect greeting cards for important occasions—birthdays, anniversaries, EU insolvency, whatever—like this one, “For Our Special President”:
We know that your life is a constant whirl
So it helps to have met a nice German girl,
To get you through those tedious speeches
But never to examine your presidential breeches.
Tokyo, Rome, Copenhagen, Seuss’s Mount Crumpit
We know how lonely must be the summit.
Through Putin, Greeks, angry reporters, a band
At least there’s a Chancellor who will hold your hand.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of “Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited,” a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is “Whistle-Stopping America.”