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Camaraderie On The World Stage: The Extraordinary Alliance Between Barack Obama and Angela Merkel

With geo-political tensions rising, the new book Dear Barack looks back at a political friendship that serves as a role model for leaders around the world.

(L) Former U.S. President Barack Obama and (R) Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel (photo credit: Reuters)

Article Written By Claudia Clark

United by a belief that democracy could uplift the world, former U.S. President Barack Obama and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel formed a friendship that transcended their disparate political views, connecting in a way that enabled them to navigate their countries through some of the most challenging events of the 21st century.

While most political pundits knew about the partnership these two created, few knew the full story — until now.

Obama was a left-leaning Democrat, Merkel a member of Germany’s far-right Christian Democratic Union, yet together, they found a way to help heal the fractures that existed between the U.S. and Europe at that time.

The new book, Dear Barack: The Extraordinary Partnership of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, gives readers an inside look at one of the great political friendships of the modern world, as told through key moments that shaped the 21st century.

It is a thoroughly researched exploration of the parallel trajectories that led to Obama and Merkel meeting on the world stage, and the trials — both personal and political — that they confronted in office. In the leaders’ own words, the book details such events as Merkel’s historic acceptance of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the 2013 NSA spying scandal, demonstrating the highs and lows of this extraordinary alliance.

A story of camaraderie at a global scale, Dear Barack is a “fit-all” in terms of politics and shows that it is possible for political adversaries to establish bonds of respect — and even friendship — in the service of the free world.

(L) Barack Obama and (R) Angela Merkel (photo credit: CNBC)

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Dear Barack. It details the events of June 9, 2011, when Chancellor Merkel made her third visit to Washington, DC, during Obama’s presidency — this time to accept the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom award from President Obama, making her the second German, after former chancellor Helmut Kohl, to receive the award.

"The press conference that afternoon set the tone for the ceremony later that evening, during a formal state dinner in the Rose Garden. The guest list comprised 208 dignitaries, including Eric Schmidt of Google, Bob McDonald of Procter & Gamble, US Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts, and orchestra conductor Christoph Eschenbach. As noted earlier, Merkel’s husband, Professor Joachim Sauer, typically avoided his wife’s public appearances. Nevertheless, understanding the importance of this event, Germany’s “Phantom of the Opera” made yet another public appearance with his wife at an event with Obama.

Michelle Obama sat next to Merkel’s husband. At one point during the course of dinner, Michelle, who normally steered clear of foreign affairs, made a point of telling Merkel, “He really treasures you, Angela,” referring to Obama’s respect for the chancellor. Like Professor Sauer’s attendance at the evening’s festivities, the first lady’s decision to intervene where she normally remained silent speaks volumes about the significance of the event.

Prior to the presentation of the award, Obama explained that the Presidential Medal of Freedom is “the highest honor a president can bestow on a civilian” — and that by receiving this honor, Merkel joined the ranks of only a handful of other non-Americans, including Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II, and her fellow German, former chancellor Helmut Kohl. He also took the opportunity to say a few words on behalf of Merkel and her achievements: “We want to pay tribute to an extraordinary leader who embodies these values and who’s inspired millions around the world — including me — and that’s my friend, Chancellor Merkel.”

Obama then described Merkel’s first political experience as a young child who saw her country divided the day the Soviet government built the Berlin Wall, and emphasized the integrity she displayed when she refused to spy for the Stasi. He declared that the intent of the evening’s festivities was to focus on Merkel’s achievements once she had obtained her freedom, adding, “Determined to finally have her say, she entered politics — rising to become the first East German to lead a united Germany, the first woman chancellor in German history, and an eloquent voice for human rights and dignity around the world.”

From the president’s remarks, it is clear he found Merkel’s journey, from her childhood under the oppressive East German government to her role as the first East German, first female chancellor of a united Germany, nothing short of remarkable. While he appreciated the journey Merkel’s life had taken, he seemed even more impressed with what she had done for herself and others once she obtained her freedom.

The president concluded with a practice that had become common over the course of their working relationship: revisiting their counterpart’s important declarations of the past, as if to reiterate the value of those statements. This time, Obama repeated the words Merkel had spoken at her speech before Congress in 2009, saying that those words “spoke not only to the dreams of that young girl in the East, but to the dreams of all who still yearn for their rights and dignity today: to freedom, which ‘must be struggled for, and then defended anew, every day of our lives.’”

When Merkel addressed the guests, she began with her now-standard greeting: “Mr. President, dear Barack.” She emotionally described the impact the building of the Berlin Wall had had on her as a young child: “Seeing the grownups around me, even my parents, so stunned that they actually broke out in tears, was something that shook me to the core.” Merkel also expressed humility as a recipient of the Medal of Freedom:

But imagining that I would one day stand in the Rose Garden of the White House and receive the Medal of Freedom from an American President, was certainly beyond even my wildest dreams. And believe me, receiving this prestigious award moves me deeply.

Merkel then personally thanked all Americans as well as Obama:

My thanks go to the American people, first and foremost, for this extraordinary honor, knowing full well how much you have done for us Germans. And I thank you personally, Mr. President, because you are a man of strong convictions. You touch people with your passion and your visions for a good future for these people, also in Germany.

Those sentiments are important because they indicated the profound respect Merkel had developed for Obama over the years. To the public, it appeared the two had gotten off to a difficult start in their relationship because Merkel thought that Obama was all talk and no substance; she had been reluctant to embrace the charisma and vision that her fellow citizens had seen in him. After more than two years of working with the president, however, she saw for herself that Obama held true to his words and his actions. Despite the fact that the two politicians did not agree on every single policy issue, they had established a respectful working relationship and personal chemistry between them.

Merkel exhibited the grace of a true leader and acknowledged that the award granted to her was also being granted, in effect, to the rest of the German people and to everyone who still fought for freedom. With these remarks, she demonstrated passion and conviction with respect to standing up for the fundamental principles of freedom:

Also today, the yearning for freedom may well make totalitarian regimes tremble and fall Freedom is indivisible. Each and every one has the same right to freedom, be it in North Africa or Belarus, in Myanmar or Iran. We see that living in freedom and defending freedom are two sides of one and the same coin, for the precious gift of freedom doesn’t come naturally, but has to be fought for, nurtured, and defended time and time again.

Then, for the second time in the course of her visit, she addressed the guests in English, predicting that this prestigious award would encourage her in facing ongoing dilemmas:

Neither the chains of dictatorship nor the fetters of oppression can keep down the forces of freedom for long. This is my firm conviction that shall continue to guide me. In this, the Presidential Medal of Freedom shall serve to spur me on and to encourage me.

In the later years of her chancellorship, Merkel would face obstacles that would force her to remember and even question this conviction. One can only wonder whether these words or this medal entered her mind as she made the challenging decisions.

Author Stefan Kornelius points out that “the finale to such occasions is traditionally provided by a big name from American show business or pop music” — in this case, James Taylor, “the most American of American singer-songwriters.” According to Kornelius, Taylor “later declared that the White House had specifically requested his song ‘You’ve Got a Friend.’”

Despite all of the ceremonial activities of the visit, the festivities ended fairly anti-climatically, with a firm handshake from both parties. Merkel, after all, had her straitlaced and stern reputation to uphold. She had already let her guard down when she referred to Obama as “lieber Barack.” If she had shown any more emotion, she might have damaged her “poker face” reputation that had taken her so long to acquire.

Obama staffers had specifically requested James Taylor perform at the state dinner because of the highly symbolic nature of his famous song “You’ve Got a Friend.” The sentiments certainly had not been lost on the night of the state dinner, but never would James Taylor’s words be truer than when Obama and Merkel would meet again, later that year in Cannes, France, to discuss the global economy, most notably the Greece situation, at the G20 summit."

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Claudia Clark is an American-born author, speaker, and activist focused on progressive causes. In 2017, Clark and her husband moved from California to Germany where she is researching her next book comparing the lives and experiences of Germans divided by the Berlin Wall during the Cold War with the Irish divided by the Peace Walls in the 1970s and 1980s at the height of the IRA conflicts. Clark has several advanced degrees, with a focus on community organizing, women’s history, public policy, and labor relations.


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