- The Washington Times - Monday, January 30, 2006

BERLIN. — The ultramodern Dresdner Bank building rises from land that once was 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.” Mrs. Merkel, he exulted, “is committed to accelerate a close partnership with the United States,” even as he suggested the previous tensions were greatly exaggerated by the news media.

But Mr. Bush didn’t need the media to tell him he couldn’t stand Mrs. Merkel’s predecessor. Gerhard Schroeder loudly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, siding with the detested French and using Mr. Bush as a punching bag during the 2002 election in Germany. The president and his subordinates responded by letting it be known that if Mr. 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 Mr. Bush refused to even take a call from Mr. Schroeder when the chancellor was re-elected.

Mrs. 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 Mr. Bush and Mrs. Merkel, things will never return to what they once were.

That’s partly because Mr. Schroeder is hardly the only German at odds with Mr. Bush. A 2002 poll found 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 citizen allegedly abducted by the CIA and imprisoned for five months in Afghanistan before his release, remains an open wound here even after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice privately apologized for the mistake. In her talks with Mr. Bush, Mrs. 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 previously conquered.

With the Cold War over, though, Germany has found 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 enough to behave more or less like other countries — pursuing its own interests without begging everyone’s pardon.

Mrs. 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 Mrs. 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 once were, 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 not all their aspirations are mutual. As Merle Haggard used to sing, it’s not love, but it’s not bad.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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