I spent New Years reading Dear Barack: The Extraordinary Partnership of Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. It was another one of the books that stuck out to me while applying the Kindle books, available now, history filters to my local library catalog. I chose it for a number of reasons. Germany has a place close to my heart since I served an LDS mission there in 2010-11. Angela Merkel has been a constant during that time, serving four terms as chancellor of Germany. I wasn’t nearly as aware of the politics of the country I was living in at the time, but I have tried to make up for it after I returned home by reading German newspapers and books and listening to podcasts. A book dedicated to the friendship between these two leaders seemed like an appropriate meeting point of these two worlds.
I would also say I wanted to remember a time when politics was more sane. Obama was elected my senior year of high school. I didn’t pay much attention to politics then, but you could get away with that when things were less politically charged. One of the strengths of this book was a clear narrative of the major foreign policy issues during the Obama administration: Afghanistan, the Paris climate accord, the T-TIP free trade agreement with Europe, the Ukraine crisis, the Iran nuclear arms deal. All were familiar terrain, but I remembered them as isolated events and the political divides they formed. Many of them were only remembered because Trump had made it is mission to dismantle them.
The purpose of the book isn’t necessarily to comment on these political issues of the day. They are the background, the setting, for telling the story of the friendship between Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. The author doesn’t have access to the personal lives of these two world leaders. She doesn’t carry out any interviews with family members or acquaintances and essentially pulls her narrative together from the public record, from the speeches and summits and conferences where Merkel and Obama met. For me, this seemed tedious at times. It seemed like a lot of political posturing, but perhaps I’m more like Merkel who “tends to have little use for gestures of superficiality.” You will spend pages and pages hearing Obama and Merkel exchanging pleasantries or telling the press how important America and Germany are to each other.
The topic itself isn’t a bad one, but I wish there was more source material to pull from. The author has a hard task making a full narrative. There are some interesting contours to their relationship that you could outline as follows:
- Obama and Merkel got off to a frosty start when Merkel refused to let Obama give a speech at the Brandenburg Gate as a presidential candidate.
- They eventually warm up to each other, the clear indication being when Merkel refers to Obama as “lieber Barack” and uses the informal “du” to address him.
- The relationship is shot when the media uncovers that the NSA had wiretapped Angela Merkel’s phone. They still have a working relationship, but it is much more strained.
- The Ukraine crisis compels the two to work closely together, and they eventually repair their close relationship.
- Merkel, and for that matter, the whole world, is afraid the close relationship between the US and Germany will come to an end when Trump is elected president. Obama and Merkel say their goodbyes.
The Afterword of the book deviates from the focus on the Obama-Merkel relationship instead describing the fallout of the 2016 election on world politics. It does serve a purpose in the overall narrative by contrasting the close relationship of Obama and Merkel with the non-existent one between Trump and Merkel.