BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to face pressure to offer more help to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan when she meets U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington next week.
Merkel, who began a second term this week as leader of a new center-right coalition, is also expected to discuss climate change and Iran’s nuclear program in talks with Obama on Tuesday before addressing a joint session of Congress.
But the Afghanistan mission will be of central importance as NATO allies search for a new strategy in the face of rising public frustration with the eight-year conflict.
When Obama took power in January, Merkel told him she could not to step up Berlin’s military commitments there because of the looming German election.
With that out of the way and Merkel freed from the shackles of her awkward “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats, Washington is likely to expect more.
The invitation from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to speak before Congress, an honor not granted to a German leader since Konrad Adenauer in 1957, has further raised hopes in Washington.
“It is a gesture that comes with expectations: the United States wants Germany to help shoulder its international burdens,” said Josef Braml of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “The grace period is over. Germany has to deliver.”
Although Germany is likely to resist any demands to send more combat troops, it will face pressure to step up its training of Afghan police and armed forces, and to boost its civilian reconstruction efforts.
Braml said Washington could also seek more money from Berlin to help stabilize Pakistan and rebuild Iraq.
Iran will be another focus as Western powers assess changes to a U.N.-drafted nuclear fuel deal that Tehran has proposed.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has signaled that Washington will allow nuclear talks to play out before new sanctions are considered. But Obama could seek pledges from Merkel for tough action if the negotiations falter.
The Obama administration may also be hoping Merkel will use her speech, which officials in Berlin said would be delivered mainly in German, to deliver a forceful message on climate change ahead of a looming U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen.
A climate bill has run into Republican opposition in the U.S. Senate. Failure to make progress there could limit Obama’s ability to seal an international pact at the December summit.
“Bringing Merkel over to stress the importance of climate change and talk about Germany’s successes in tackling the issue could have an impact,” said Alexander Ochs, a German who is director of the climate and energy program at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington.
“People in Washington like her. She is seen as one of the key U.S. allies in Europe, and is a conservative whose message will be heard by Republicans.”
The invitation to address Congress has cooled talk in the German media about a lack of rapport between Merkel and Obama.
They got off to a rocky start after Merkel refused to let Obama speak at the Brandenburg Gate last year when he was a candidate in the U.S. presidential campaign.
But ties seem to have improved. Plans by Merkel’s new government to pursue billions of euros in tax cuts will have pleased U.S. officials, who urged Berlin to take steps to boost consumer spending in the wake of the economic crisis.
Merkel’s new cabinet is also full of America-friendly faces, including Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg.
“Too much has been made of their differences,” said Charles Kupchan, director of European Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “At the end of the day I think they are quite similar. Both are pragmatists intent on building coalitions to deliver the goods.”
Editing by Kevin Liffey