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.
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
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
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
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
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.
2006 Creators Syndicate