German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be in town this week for a visit to the White House, where President Obama will present her with the Medal of Freedom. Her visit comes at a time when the United States and Germany are struggling to find common ground on a variety of issues. The two world leaders will have much to discuss besides the global economy, and neither should substitute style for substance.

For starters, Merkel will need to explain why her government is pursing further cuts to Germany’s already small defense budget. And why, just this past week, Berlin decided to shutter all of its nuclear power plants over course of the next decade without a good plan for how to fill the gap that it creates.

These decisions have policy implications. Cuts to Germany’s military budget means the United States will likely be forced to carry even more of the load for NATO operations. By forgoing nuclear power, Germany may become alarmingly dependent on energy supplies from Russia, which, as the Christian Science Monitor asserts, “has used gas exports and pipelines to blackmail and divide greater Europe.”

Americans will also want to know where Germany stands on several looming decisions:

  • Winning the war in Afghanistan. As Heritage’s expert Sally McNamara pointed out in 2009, Germany and several other NATO countries “underresourced the U.N.-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan from the start.” Germany now has 5,000 troops in Afghanistan, making it the third-largest troop-contributing country. But polls show that Germans want a definite withdrawal date, and earlier this year, the German Parliament voted to begin withdrawing troops as early as the end of 2011.
  • Missile defenses and the U.S. nuclear deterrence in Europe. Certain German leaders, including the current foreign minister, are in favor of removing American nuclear forces from Germany. Currently, it’s believed that there are 10–20 American nuclear weapons deployed on German soil, although the exact number isn’t public information. Heritage expert Baker Spring and McNamara warn that “eliminating the U.S. tactical nuclear arsenal in Europe cripples deterrence, stripping away an important pillar of transatlantic security and placing European force posture at a disadvantage.”
  • Helping stop Iran’s race toward nuclear weapons. In testimony before Congress in 2008, Heritage expert Nile Gardiner shared a report by the Realité think tank in Europe that a “staggering” 5,000 German companies conduct business with Iran. Journalists Benjamin Weinthal and Giulio Meotti wrote in The Wall Street Journal that trade between Iran and German businesses increased in the first 10 months of 2010, hindering international efforts aimed at getting Iran’s to give up its nuclear program. Merkel took a strong step forward last month by endorsing EU sanctions on a German bank known to do business with Iran, but much more is needed.

These are not insignificant issues. Let’s hope President Obama does not avoid these issues when he sits down with Merkel.