Angela Merkel and Her Distaste for World Leaders

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Merkel at the Reichstag.

Why can't German leader Angela Merkel abide her own peers? She bristles at Nicolas Sarkozy, protests Gordon Brown's widely praised economic-stimulus plan as a "pointless race to spend billions," and appears immune to the charm of U.S. President Barack Obama, whom most other Germans seem to love.

Merkel's standoffish manner is the outgrowth of a German foreign policy that has, since the end of the Cold War, grown increasingly independent of American influence and focused on German self-interest, whether in military adventures in the Balkans, Iraq, or Afghanistan or in handling the global economic crisis. And unlike her recent predecessors, Helmut Kohl and Gerhard Schröder, Merkel grew up outside the political mainstream, as a physicist in East Germany. As a result, her style is more businesslike, less backslapping. She is "Ms. Cautious," and growing more so as elections approach in September, says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund. "She's not just jumping onto a global hype."

Thus, she has remained silent on whether Tony Blair (or anyone else) should become the first president of the European Council, if the powerful post is created as planned. Her relationship with Sarkozy is limited by his spontaneity and her disdain for it. And her initial coolness to Obama suggests neither dislike nor disregard, but rather a sizing up of a young leader and a straightforward respect for seniority; she sees herself as sen-ior to Obama, just as she saw herself as junior to George W. Bush when she became chancellor in 2005, says one Merkel watcher.

The ties to Obama, at least, could warm over time. In contrast to Brown and Sarkozy, the American and German leaders are popular at home, with approval ratings of 60 percent or more. Both are realists who recognize that their countries' different national interests may lead to disagreements on issues like handling the economic crisis and Afghanistan. And both are known for their unsentimental personal styles, suggesting that a meeting of the minds, if not the hearts, is possible.