- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 6, 2003

This is not a time for rancor fomented by gratuitously incendiary remarks. Rather, it is a time for clarity about an exemplary relationship between the United States and Germany that has lasted more than 50 years but now is changing.
Recent events, accompanied by an escalating war of words with little or no deference paid to the usefulness of diplomacy, have called the very assumptions that support this valuable relationship into question. One of the factors singled out as a cause of the trans-Atlantic ill will is German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's decision to distance himself and his country from Washington's intentions to gather a coalition of the willing and remove Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
This is true. Mr. Schroeder's intemperate remarks in the heat of a close re-election campaign last fall were divisive. They also demonstrated remarkably little understanding on the part of a world leader about the art of communicating disagreements over policy.
However, to focus solely on this event and the scathing trans-Atlantic tete-a-tete that ensued, is to miss the critical fact that the roots of this profoundly disturbing impasse actually go much deeper than what to do about a dictator who sits with weapons of mass destruction in Baghdad. In fact, failure to understand the true causes puts at risk a future U.S.-German relationship that can be every bit as valuable as the relationship has been the last 50-plus years.
It therefore seems incumbent on all of us who value this relationship to try to understand how we got to where we are because there will come a time when the dust settles and the relationship will have to find its way forward.
During a recent stay in Berlin, I was struck by a conversation I had with an adamant German taxicab driver who was taking me a short distance from the American Academy to the Aspen Institute. Both are institutions created to promote American-German understanding and dialogue, particularly during controversial times like the present.
The driver was insistent. He wanted me to know first how wrong he thought President Bush's policies were on Iraq, but more importantly, how inflated the United States has become as the world's hyper-power in this post Cold War era. Had he read that morning's editorial in the Berlin newspaper, I wondered, with its sly comparison of Mr. Bush to an emperor in the Roman empire?
It wasn't so much what the driver said but how adamant he was that caught my attention.
In his own inarticulate way, he pinpointed the issue for the Germans that the Bush administration seems yet to get their arms around. The new world order has positioned the United States, as the most powerful country, at the top of the pyramid. But under it are rows and rows of allies, both old and new, who also are in the process of laying claim to revised roles and responsibilities in the international world order.
They want to be acknowledged for their support, not as vassals of U.S. foreign policy but as countries capable of agreeing and differing.
The difficulty is that there is change under way at the top as well as in the rows under the pyramid's tip. And neither side seems particularly willing to make the effort simply to understand how and where change is affecting the other's policies and attitudes.
In the United States, we underwent a profound change in our collective psyche as a result of the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil in September 2001. Up to that point, we believed we were securely tucked away inside our borders, bounded by huge oceans and friendly neighbors. Prior to September 11, who would ever have predicted that an "orange alert" in mid-February would send Americans in droves out to buy duct tape and cellophane to seal themselves off from their fears?
These fears also help explain Mr. Bush's long run in the popularity polls. He has succeeded in artfully reminding American voters that his job description is to care about the nation's security and each individual's security. He has become a polished tactician at home while his administration remains bereft of effective diplomatic relationships with important Western European allies.
Germans have grown dismissive of the U.S. obsession with security now more than a year after the September 11 attacks. Early on, Germany was among those countries worldwide that declared touching solidarity with the United States, declaring on Sept. 12, 2001, that "we are all Americans." Today, Germans seem to be saying: "Get over it. We have, and we in Europe live with terrorism on a daily basis."
So does arrogance have to beget arrogance? The difficulty is identifying the starting point of a disagreement that has gotten out of hand. For example, it seems the Bush administration has yet to understand or demonstrate that they understand how German society also is changing and the implications that can have for the trans-Atlantic relationship.
Today, the habitually introspective Germans are intent on being seen as normal citizens of both Europe and the world, capable of outlining their national interests. Relations with Washington remain one pillar of their foreign policy, but the other, of equal or arguably greater importance, is Berlin's relationship with Europe and the European Union.
Germans still acknowledge being recipients of enormous American good will starting with the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift and continuing through today, providing a security shield that is the best in the world. But they also have made final payment (emphasis on final) of their World War II reparations; defied domestic critics by sending troops to the Balkans; and this January, assumed command along with the Dutch of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
With 2,200 troops now in place, this program is Germany's most ambitious foreign engagement since World War II. Germans are demonstrating they understand their history and realize that, while it cannot be forgotten, it should not be allowed to cripple their full participation in international affairs with allies and friends.
These illustrations of Germany's evolution seem barely to resonate with Washington. Instead, Washington is absorbed in its own, solitary shift toward a one-note national security foreign policy. Berlin, meanwhile, also is making a shift.
Where Germans formerly eschewed the very notion of national interest, choosing instead to hide behind the policy rationales of the United States and even Brussels, today they talk openly about what is best for Germany and Germans. They have given themselves permission to catapult national interest to the top of the policy-making lists.
Failure to acknowledge these respective evolutions will most certainly be detrimental to the trans-Atlantic relationship. After more than 50 years of following the leader, the Germans are making a stand on behalf of mutuality in a relationship between democracies. Many Americans, on the other hand, still think the Germans are there to follow the U.S. lead, out of gratitude if nothing else.
Thus, it is imperative that someone take the first step to lay out the differences between us. The challenge also will be to avoid papering over those differences. "I know we will have functioning trans-Atlantic ties again," says Angelika Volle, executive editor of Internationale Politik, the journal of the German Council on Foreign Affairs. "But the ties will be based on greater attention to national interest on both sides of the Atlantic. This will make the relationship more difficult, I believe, but also more honest."
A relationship that is stronger because it is more honest has the best chance yet of producing clarity about this very stormy period.

Marsha Vande Berg is Kiriyama Fellow, Center for Pacific Rim, University of San Francisco.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide