January 29, 2006
The United States and Germany: Back Together Again

By Steve Chapman

BERLIN -- The ultra-modern Dresdner Bank building rises from land that used to be part of communist East Berlin, but this winter evening, Americans and Germans are busy putting that and other unpleasant elements of the past behind them. At a crowded reception sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce in Germany, capitalists are eating, drinking and discussing ways to do something frowned on under the previous regime -- make profits.

There is plenty to talk about, since Germany is the world's biggest exporting nation and America the biggest importer. But tonight, it's not business but politics that dominates the atmosphere.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Bush met a few days earlier in Washington, and there was big news: They got along. That's not quite as surprising as the report from the Tokyo Zoo of a hamster and a rat snake that happily snuggle together in their shared cage. But in the last few years, harmony hasn't exactly been the norm between the two governments.

U.S. Ambassador William Timken told the gathering, "What a difference a year makes." Merkel, he exulted, "is committed to accelerate a close partnership with the United States," even as he suggested that the previous tensions were greatly exaggerated by the news media.

But Bush didn't need the media to tell him he couldn't stand Merkel's predecessor. Gerhard Schroeder loudly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, siding with the detested French and using Bush as a punching bag during his 2002 campaign.

The president and his subordinates responded by letting it be known that if Schroeder were drowning, they would toss him an anchor.

Forget that Germany has been a big help in Afghanistan. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld derided Germany and France as "old Europe," and Bush refused to even take a call from Schroeder after the German leader won re-election.

Merkel is more the president's style -- a low-key child of communism who preaches free markets and supported him on the Iraq war. They met alone in the Oval Office, had lunch together and emerged looking chummier than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The scene brought back fond memories of the days when Germans and Americans joined together to rebuild from World War II, stand firm against the Kremlin and reunite a divided Germany.

But nostalgia only goes so far. However cozy the relationship between Bush and Merkel, things will never return to what they once were.

That's partly because Schroeder is hardly the only German at odds with Bush. A 2002 poll found that 68 percent of Germans preferred a strong U.S. role in the world. Today, 60 percent oppose it.

The case of Khaled al-Masri, a German allegedly abducted by the CIA and imprisoned for five months in Afghanistan before being released, remains an open wound here even after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice privately apologized for the mistake. In her talks with Bush, Merkel didn't hold back from registering disapproval of the U.S. detention camp in Guantanamo.

These issues may be passing irritants, but other changes are here to stay. After World War II, the German-American relationship was defined by NATO, and it worked well for both: The U.S. got a crucial ally in the Cold War, and the Germans found a way to take part in world affairs without sowing panic among the neighbors they had previously conquered.

With the Cold War over, though, Germany has found that its priorities lie mostly with partners in the European Union, not the United States. From this vantage, Europe is drawing closer, while the Atlantic is getting wider.

More important, Germany is no longer shackled by its horrible history. It has redeemed itself sufficiently to behave more or less like other countries -- pursuing its own interests without begging everyone's pardon. Merkel has demonstrated that by de-emphasizing relations with France and criticizing Schroeder pal Vladimir Putin.

But she didn't establish her independence from Paris and Moscow only to surrender it to Washington. Eberhard Sandscheider of the German Council on Foreign Relations has said the theme of Merkel's foreign policy is balance -- "not just playing with the two or three big partners and forget about the interests of the smaller ones."

The U.S. and Germany will probably never be as close as they used to be, or as close as the U.S. and Britain remain. But there's no reason they can't work together on their mutual aspirations, while accepting that not all their aspirations are mutual. As Merle Haggard used to sing, it's not love, but it's not bad.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

Steve Chapman

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