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Transatlantic relations

US lukewarm on potential Chancellor Steinbrück

US policymakers hope that a potential German Chancellor Peer Steinbrück would ensure continuity on existing German policy - especially as it might affect US economic and other interests, writes Kevin Lees.

Steinbrück in late September emerged as the chancellor candidate of the center-left Social Democatic Party (SPD) and the chief opponent to incumbent chancellor Angela Merkel, who will lead the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). In the United States, as in Germany, Merkel is still viewed as the likelier winner - Matt Yglesias, an economic columnist writing for Slate, has already dismissed Steinbrück's challenge a "likely futile campaign."

Nonetheless, the overwhelming priority for US policymakers and pundits alike with respect to Germany, through the 2013 election and likely for some time thereafter, will be whether Germany's leadership can keep the political and financial aspects of the eurozone crisis from spiraling out of control.

In light of Germany's special role at the heart of the European Union, and given that it's the most populous nation in Europe, US policymakers will be looking to the winner of the 2013 election to drive European policy away from any sudden events - such as a rapid breakup of the eurozone - that could depress global economic output, given that any contagion from the EU could torpedo the US economy's already-tepid economic growth.

Both Merkel and Steinbrück, however, are committed to the success of the EU and the single currency - if anything, the SPD is seen as even more pro-Europe than the CDU, and especially more pro-Europe than the CDU's sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union and the CDU's federal coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party. So Steinbrück is seen as perhaps slightly more willing to do "whatever it takes" to ensure the eurozone's survival, and an SPD-led government would likely be willing to provide better terms to countries like Greece, Spain and Italy that are currently in the worst economic shape.

Continuity

Steinbrück, who served as Germany's finance minister under Merkel in the SPD-CDU grand coalition government from 2005 to 2009, would also mark continuity in German economic policy - in contrast to center-left leaders such as former UK prime minister Gordon Brown and current French president Francois Hollande, Steinbrück derided Keynsian economics in 2008 and, alongside Merkel, refused to consider large amounts of stimulus funding in 2008 and 2009.

Notwithstanding sluggish or negative growth throughout the eurozone, and with even Germany now headed toward recession, the election of an SPD chancellor would not fundamentally tip the balance in favor of Hollande's vision of prioritizing economic and job growth over budget austerity. For US pundits who favor stimulative policies, notably Paul Krugman, that will continue to be a source of frustration, although that's certainly no worse than what might be expected from Merkel's government, even in the face of recessionary economic conditions.

Kevin Lees is an associate attorney at Latham & Watkins LLP and the editor of Suffragio.org. 
Copyright: Kevin Lees

Kevin Lees

Economic progressives will, nonetheless, be heartened by Steinbrück's enthusiasm for tighter regulation of German banks. It seems likely that a future SPD government would move more aggressively to enact banking and other financial sector reforms, similar to the way that current administration of US president Barack Obama, adopted financial reform in the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010 (legislation ensuring more financial regulation and transparency - the ed.). For US financial analysts, in particular, Steinbrück's views on banking reform could herald a new push for continent-wide reform at a time when a fully integrated European banking union seems increasingly likely.

Steinbrück is known as quite a bit more outspoken than Merkel, and not just on Keynesianism - in 2008, he railed against "Anglo-Saxon capitalism," and he bluntly declared that the United States would soon lose its status as the superpower of the global financial system. Indeed, that outspokenness has caused him problems in the US media in the past. That, along with his relatively activist views on banking reform, will not make Steinbrück any friends on Wall Street.

Nonetheless, on European policy, as well as on the more narrow focus of German economic policy, Steinbrück would not exactly mark a rupture; that will be especially true if the next German election leads to another grand coalition between the CDU and SPD.

Policy priorities

German-US relations will depend relatively more on the outcome of the US presidential and legislative elections. If Republican Mitt Romney is elected president, US economic policy will likely be less stimulative than if Obama is reelected.

But nowhere will the US election matter more than in the area of foreign policy - a Romney administration would be much more likely than the Obama administration to consider military action to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapon capability. While Merkel's government has supported the Obama administration's approach for increasingly tougher economic sanctions on Iran, it seems unlikely that Germany, especially under a SPD chancellor, would have much appetite for military action in Iran. Although it seems likely that a CDU-led government would also be skeptical of a military strike on Iran, SPD-led governments opposed US action in both Vietnam in the 1970s and more recently (and more acrimoniously) in Iraq.

Notably, former SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder's strident opposition of the US-led invasion of Iraq put him at sharp odds with the administration of US president George W. Bush. His opposition on Iraq featured prominently in the 2002 German election, and some US policymakers at the time accused Schröder of harnessing anti-American sentiment to help him win that election. The rift between Bush and Schröder marked perhaps the coolest point in postwar German-US relations and by the end of Schröder's government he was on warmer terms with Russian President Vladimir Putin than Bush.

Nonetheless, it is difficult to believe that US foreign policy will become quite as large an issue in Germany's 2013 election as it was in 2002, in light of the flagging German economy and the broader eurozone policy choices that would dominate Steinbrück's agenda as chancellor.

Kevin Lees is an associate attorney at Latham & Watkins LLP in Washington D.C. and the editor of Suffragio.org.

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