Neck rubs, expensive dinners, phone tapping allegations, awkward handshake moments
Angela Merkel is pretty familiar with the U.S. presidents.
As she closes her 16-year tenure, the German chancellor will make her 19th and most likely final official visit in the United States on Thursday. She will meet with President Joe Biden, her fourth American president.
Merkel, who turns 70 on Saturday, will soon be entering political retirement after she decided long ago to not seek a fifth term at Germany’s Sept. 26 elections.
Merkel, one of the most respected leaders in the close U.S. ally, is ready for a warm reception when she meets Biden on her first visit to Washington since January.
There are still contentious issues on the table. These include the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany that the U.S. opposes, as well as Biden’s attempts to persuade European allies to abandon objections to intellectual-property waivers in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines sharing with the developing world.
This is a fitting conclusion to Merkel’s relationship with American leaders. Here are some highlights from the past years.
GEORGE W. BUSH
Merkel was elected to power in Bush’s second term, and began to repair relations damaged by Gerhard Schroeder’s opposition to the war on Iraq.
She became close to Bush and found that his stomach was the best way to get his heart. Bush was captivated by the wild boar roast that Merkel prepared for him during a visit to Merkel’s northeastern Germany parliamentary constituency in July 2006.
A few days later, Bush gave Merkel a quick neck-and shoulder rub at a Group of Eight summit held in St. Petersburg, Russia. The news quickly spread on the internet. Merkel looked surprised, and she threw her arms up, grimaced, and hunched her shoulders as Bush walked off. Bush said that Merkel would not be given any back rubs when she visited the White House in January.
Bush hosted Merkel at his Crawford, Texas ranch in November 2007. Bush, dressed in jeans, said, “In Texas when you invite someone to your home it’s an expressionof warmth and respect, and that’s what I feel about Chancellor Merkel.” He drove Merkel to his Crawford, Texas ranch in his pickup.
Merkel’s relationship to Obama wasn’t the best. The chancellor rejected the idea that Obama would deliver a speech at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in July 2008. He claimed it was only a backdrop for speeches from presidents. Obama moved to the Victory Column, a Berlin landmark.
The chancellor, who shared Obama’s businesslike approach but unlike the new president never had time to indulge in soaring political rhetoric, still developed a strong working relationship. Over time, it seemed to develop a sense of personal warmth.
The two leaders met for dinner at a top-end restaurant during Merkel’s 2011 trip to Washington. This was an unusual gesture by Obama. He hosted Merkel at his White House residence for a formal dinner where he presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is the highest U.S. honor that civilians can receive.
Obama had his chance to address the Brandenburg Gate on June 2013. Merkel was there to welcome him.
The U.S. National Security Agency had been listening in on German government telephones, including Merkel’s, and it was a difficult test. Merkel stated that spying among friends was unacceptable. Merkel didn’t allow it to cast a lasting shadow on trans-Atlantic relations.
Obama dined with Merkel in Berlin on his last visit as president, November 2016. A few months later, he was back as an ex-president and participated in a public conversation with Merkel. He called her “one my favorite partners throughout the course of my presidency.”
After Trump’s 2016 election, Merkel sent his congratulations and set the tone for everything that would follow. She sent a clear message to Trump, offering “close cooperation” on basis of transatlantic values she shared. These values, she stated, include respect for dignity of all people, regardless of their origins, gender, or religion.
Although they were not a natural match, the former physicists and former reality TV stars were often seen together in public.
The famously awkward moment at the Oval Office during Merkel’s March 2017 first visit to Trump White House produced by Merkel. Photographers called for a “handshake!” and Merkel asked Trump quietly if he would like to shake hands. The president looked ahead, his hands still clasped.
In his four years of office, Trump has never paid a bilateral visit Germany. However, he did attend the 2017 Merkel-hosted Group of 20 summit.
Merkel was photographed seated at a table facing Trump during the Group of Seven Summit in Canada in 2018.
Trump was fond of Merkel’s Germany. Trump called NATO ally Merkel “delinquent” for not spending enough defense funds and announced that he would pull out approximately 9,500 of the 34,500 U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany.
Merkel suggested that Europe couldn’t rely solely on the U.S. in 2017. She spoke at Harvard University in 2019 and said that a new generation must “tear down wallsof ignorance” to defeat isolationism.
Merkel welcomed Biden’s 2020 election in a surprisingly relaxed manner. She said that he brings decades of experience to the job and that he “knows Germany and Europe well”. She also cited good memories from previous meetings.
She was delighted to receive his address to a global audience in February.
Merkel stated that things are looking much better for multilateralism than they did two years ago. This is largely due to Joe Biden becoming the president of the United States.
Biden was vice president during the Obama presidency. However, they never had close relationships.
Biden sought to strengthen ties and made it a priority to engage with Merkel in several videoconference meetings immediately after he took office. Biden also lifted sanctions against the company behind Nord Stream 2, even though he reiterated his preference for Germany to abandon the project.
Biden’s January 20 inauguration has been a time of little in-person interaction. They met last month at the G-7 summit in England, and at NATO summit in Brussels. Thursday will mark their first bilateral meeting.
Merkel will be the first European leader in the Biden administration to visit the White House.