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Transatlantic relations

US foreign policy looms over German election

In Germany's election, controversial US policies on surveillance and Syria have forced the candidates to walk a fine line on relations with Washington. But the US wants Berlin to play a bigger global leadership role.

At the G20 summit in St. Petersburg this month, major European nations such as France, Great Britain, Italy and Spain all signed a joint statement supporting the United States' position on Syria. The document pointed the finger at the Assad regime as the likely culprit behind the alleged August 21 chemical weapons attack in eastern Damascus and called for a "strong international response."

But the signature of Europe's largest economy and arguably most important political power, Germany, was noticeably absent from the joint statement.

Berlin hesitated and then ultimately signed the communiqué one day later. It's an election year, and with the campaign now in its final leg before the vote on September 22, the center-left opposition is trying to breach Chancellor Angela Merkel's seemingly impregnable position in the polls. Even foreign policy, often a back-burner issue in elections, has become a point of campaign contention.

The issue of military strikes against Syria is not the first time that US policy has stirred up partisan recriminations in Germany's election campaign. Reporting by newsmagazine Der Spiegel on former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leaks about US surveillance programs, and Berlin's alleged involvement in them, has dogged Merkel for months now.

"It's a fine line - the candidates can't get too close to the US, especially on the NSA issue," Stephen Szabo, executive director of the Transatlantic Academy, told DW. "On the other hand they can't be seen as being too distant either, because the US is still one of German's biggest economic partners. It's still its major security partner."

Electoral fallout from NSA scandal

Merkel claims to have known nothing about the mass NSA surveillance programs prior to the Snowden leaks. And she has put stock in American assurances that US intelligence agencies are respecting German privacy laws on German soil.

The opposition, for its part, has accused Merkel of not being forthright with voters. Her challenger, Peer Steinbrück, went so far as to say that the chancellor broke her oath of office by failing to protect German citizens from alleged US spying.

But according to Jeffrey Anderson, Steinbrück is unlikely to take a page from former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's playbook and make the US a target of the campaign.

"The Social Democrats are a little bit leery about using this [NSA issue] as a cudgel," Anderson, director of Georgetown University's BMW Center for German and European Studies, told DW.

During the run-up to the 2002 election, Schröder turned widespread negative public sentiment over US plans to invade Iraq to his political advantage. The political tactic "had a somewhat lasting effect on the relationship" between the two countries, according to Anderson.

"I get the impression they're [Social Democrats] trying to avoid a recurrence of that if at all possible," he said.

Uncertainty over intervention in Syria

Meanwhile in Washington, uncertainty surrounding Syria has cleared the political agenda and put all other issues on hold for the time being.

According to Szabo, the fluid situation in Washington has made it difficult for Germany to stake out its own position.

The top candidate of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the upcoming German general elections, Peer Steinbrueck, speaks during a news conference in Berlin, August 29, 2013. German voters will take to the polls in a general election on September 22. REUTERS/Thomas Peter (GERMANY - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

Steinbrück has sought to make NSA surveillance a campaign issue

"The German government has made it very clear in that they will not repeat the Libya events; that they will certainly try to be as supportive as possible for a joint Western or American action," Szabo said.

In March 2011, Berlin abstained from a UN Security Council vote authorizing the use of military force to protect civilians during Libya's popular uprising and ensuing civil war, isolating itself from its traditional American, British and French allies.

But during the only televised debate between Merkel and her Social Democrat opponent Steinbrück, both candidates ruled out German military participation in a US-led intervention in Syria.

"When certain options are put on the table, and in particular when there's a question of threat of force, you just aren't going to turn to the Germans for a big push here for help and that's accepted as a fact of life [in Washington]," Anderson said.

US looks to Germany for EU leadership

While the US has few expectations of Germany in terms of projecting military power, Washington does respect and hope to leverage Berlin's economic influence, particularly in the troubled eurozone.

Through the continued ups and downs of Europe's debt crisis, the US has become disillusioned with the EU's ability to manage crises, according to Szabo. And as a result, Washington has turned to Berlin to fill the leadership vacuum in Europe.

"The big issue for Americans is will Germany take a larger leadership role both in Europe and also a bit outside of Europe as well," Szabo said. "Will it step up more to take on the political responsibilities to match its economic weight?"

Perhaps one of the biggest tests of Germany's willingness to lead will come as the EU and US negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The successful conclusion of an agreement would create the world's largest free trade bloc.

And according to Szabo, an EU-US free trade agreement would help promote liberal values at a time when authoritarian powers such as China and Russia are becoming more important in world politics. As Europe's largest economy, Germany will be key in sealing the deal, he said.

"It's not only an economic and trade issue," Szabo added. "It's a way of beginning to expand and globalize norms that we've been developing here in the West."

DW.DE