- The Washington Times - Monday, December 19, 2005

“Who would have thought that the Social Democrats and the Union (Christian Democratic Union/Christian Socialist Union) would discover so much common ground that they were able to draft a program for four years?” Thus spoke Germany’s resolute new Chancellor Angela Merkel when she took charge of a coalition government born of political necessity.

Four years is a long time in politics. The Federal Republic’s last Grand Coalition, memorable for Willy Brandt’s ascent to chancellor in 1969, lasted three years. However, in this marriage of political convenience, held together by a carefully worked out “coalition contract” studded with all manner of compromises, each party knows a collapse of the union means new elections with everyone a loser.

While recognizing Germany is in an economic crisis topped by an unprecedented 11 percent unemployment rate and in need of drastic social reforms, Mrs. Merkel’s message is decidedly upbeat. Calling the Grand Coalition a “coalition of new opportunities,” Germany’s first woman chancellor repeatedly evoked the specter of a novel national self-confidence.

Emphasizing the positive in Germany’s historic cultural and scientific achievements, as the “land of ideas” and world champion in exports, she promises to help establish domestic conditions to restore Germany among Europe’s power brokers.

Talking about herself and fellow East Germans who ran into walls whenever they tried to move ahead before the Berlin Wall fell, the new chancellor wants to “dare more freedom.” Appreciative of the progress united Germany has made during the last 15 years, despite current sluggish economic growth, an aging population and a “frightening” national debt, she praised her predecessors for the annual transfer of 4 percent of the gross domestic product to build up the newly integrated eastern states, formed out of old East Germany.

In an effort to reinvent Germany’s crippled economy, the conservative chancellor made sure the agenda is dominated by negotiated compromises on her draconian tax reforms and measures to stimulate economic growth by loosening restrictive labor laws and thereby lowering high labor costs.

Mrs. Merkel’s self-confident optimism may already have had an effect. Signs of economic recovery, though still mostly export-driven, have been cited by the Bundesbank: Foreigners snapped up 71 billion euros in German equities and the domestic market shows signs of new life and restored consumer confidence.

The refreshing pragmatism and decisiveness with which this cool no-nonsense politician, trained as a scientist, oversees the domestic domain extends to foreign policy. From the start, Mrs. Merkel let it be known foreign relations would be part of her domain. In Frank-Walter Steinmeier, her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder’s chief of staff, she settled on a competent foreign minister who will hardly overshadow her.

She knows Germany’s friends and partners watch her with high expectations that she will shape developments by continuing to shoulder German international responsibilities in Europe, the Balkans, the Middle East and in the struggle against terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Building on mutual interests and a common set of values, Mrs. Merkel seeks closer ties to the United States as an equal partner. While stressing Germany’s foreign policy is inevitably oriented toward its national interest, she says European and Atlantic security cannot be separated. As a partner, Mrs. Merkel promptly asked for U.S. help in freeing a German hostage in Iraq, making clear her government will not be blackmailed.

Denoting terrorism as one of the great challenges to the international community, she warns against the West relaxing its guard and urges firm defense of our values, freedom, democracy and human rights. In this context, she also asked visiting U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for clarification of media reports concerning CIA prisoner transports to secret jails and irregular overflights. Hardly satisfied with Miss Rice’s can’t-confirm-or-deny diplomatic talk or assurances any mistakes would be rectified, Mrs. Merkel decided not to sweep the matter under a rug.

Meanwhile, a German citizen of Lebanese origin is suing the CIA. And it has not escaped the media that Miss Rice seems to suggest European officials were aware of certain measures by counterterrorist agents and Mrs. Merkel is playing it cool by referring the ugly affair to the German parliamentary Control Commission in charge of intelligence oversight for investigation.

In a 15-page agreement, the coalition partners explored the changes in Europe and the altered relations between Berlin and Washington in the framework of the trans-Atlantic partnership since the American-led war on Iraq.

Following Miss Rice’s otherwise successful visit to Berlin, Chancellor Merkel is to confer with President Bush on Jan. 13. However, her first courtesy calls were in Paris, Brussels, London and Warsaw, where she surprised friend and foe with her support for the controversial European Union constitution and the contested cutbacks of farm subsidies that benefit principally France and Britain.

Mrs. Merkel favors a strong strategic partnership with Russia that keeps Moscow looking to the West as an indispensable partner for peace and stability in Europe. But Mrs. Merkel experienced communism in East Germany and has spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin in his own language. The cautious Mrs. Merkel is mindful of the Chechnya situation and Russian issues involving the rule of law and human rights.

Unlike Mr. Schroeder, Mrs. Merkel abstains from involvement in an entente between Berlin, Paris and Moscow as a counterweight to the United States.

Her refusal to approve of lifting the EU weapons embargo on China is linked to human rights concerns, which supports the U.S. position. Still, she doesn’t buy into the U.S. administration’s view on the accession of Turkey to full EU membership. And, though prepared to help train Iraqi forces outside Iraq, Mrs. Merkel refuses to send German troops there.

There is agreement with America on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Berlin approves of a negotiated resolution, with Russia carrying out the uranium enrichment outside Iran. Germany also favors referring the problem to the U.N. Security Council in the event the negotiated solution fails.

One surprise is Mrs. Merkel’s unexpected interest in a permanent German seat on the U.N. Security Council, an idea that had been pushed by Mr. Schroeder and that ignores the U.S. administration’s priorities on U.N. structural reforms.

The U.S. should appreciate the significance of Mrs. Merkel’s attention to EU security strategy, not an “ersatz” counterweight to NATO, but as a supplement to the “strongest anchor of our security.” Without question, her position affirms the idea there can be no separation of European and Atlantic security, and that the Atlantic security partnership lives.

Notwithstanding Mrs. Merkel’s compromises to secure her chancellorship, she is no pushover. Not much of a campaigner, this high-powered disciplined intellectual with a razor-sharp mind follows her own counsel. Weaned in the stately game of diplomatic chess by her masterful mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, she promises to be a formidable decisionmaker who wants to leave her mark.

She must not be underestimated.

Viola Herms Drath is a member of the executive committee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and was awarded the 2005 William J. Flynn Initiative for Peace Award for her seminal work promoting German reunification.

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