- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Germany’s new Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Washington last month to repair relations badly frayed by her socialist predecessor’s vehement opposition to the Iraq war. She showed herself prepared, welcome or otherwise, to openly and positively discuss all issues from her opposition to U.S. internment of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay to Turkey’s European Union accession and furthering Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas’ constructive role in confronting Hamas, to her full support of the United States on Iran and the war on terror. Mrs. Merkel is off to a promising start.

A confident chancellor, buoyed by favorable polls, followed suit in Moscow where she irked President Vladimir Putin with concerns about Russia muzzling nongovernmental organizations and about the human-rights situation in Chechnya. While the chancellor talked about her “good relationship” with Mr. Bush and welcomed improved German-American relations, Mr. Bush proclaimed, “Our job now is to work together.”

“We’ve got something in common, we both didn’t exactly landslide our way into here,” Mr. Bush joked. Actually, this is not the only thing shared by Mr. Bush and the East German Lutheran pastor’s daughter. Both are hardly favorites within their own parties. So both surround themselves with a tight group of confidants. Both are religious.

Their unscripted conversation ranged from the Middle East to the Frankfurt Book Fair, from life under Soviet rule and abortion, supported by Mrs. Merkel under special circumstances, to the negative effect of sanctions that punish populations instead of repressive regimes.

Time and again, Mrs. Merkel stressed frequent communication to avert crises. She said misunderstandings are partly due to lack of consultation. Welcoming a climate of trust and openness, she declared: “We need each other.”

While Mr. Bush thanked her government for its constructive contribution in Afghanistan, Mrs. Merkel called for a joint strategy to stabilize that country. Praising Washington’s contribution to world order and the tremendous know-how America brings to this effort, she acknowledged Germany, preoccupied with economic stagnation, may have looked the other way for too long and did not feel as responsible.

Looking to influence international developments in favor of German interests, Mr. Merkel sees a more central role in world affairs for Germany, despite limited military capabilities.

Stressing a new national awareness, Mrs. Merkel reminded her audience at the German Embassy of her country’s accomplishments and its potential to help confront the challenges of the 21st century.

Beginning with the success of the social-market economy, she noted the first automobile was built in Germany, that aspirin is a German product, Germany once was the world pharmacy and that, though seldom noted, Germans built the first computer.

In light of the expanding role of the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF), the future of NATO and its role in the war on terror was another topic. Mrs. Merkel called for a decision on whether the military shield that protected Europe during the Cold War should remain as it is or be morphed into a construct for security and strategic political consultations between the United States and its European partners to advance NATO’s lead anti-terrorism role.

Mrs. Merkel is committed to European unification, with Franco-German relations at the center. As leader of the Grand Coalition, she underscored the need for a revision of the defeated EU Constitution and timely accession of the Balkans to stabilize that region. Given Mrs. Merkel’s bravura debut as mediator in the EU fight over agricultural subsidies, President Bush does not underestimate her growing influence.

Mr. Bush was served well by Mrs. Merkel’s sober assessment of the critical nuclear Iran issue, later amplified with the call to stop nascent development of Iranian nuclear weapons. Her strong warnings at Munich’s Security Conference were not lost on Tehran’s bellicose leaders. After ending their voluntary cooperation with the U.N. Atomic Energy Agency’s inspection team, they conceded quickly they were open to proposals to enrich Iranian uranium in Russia.

“We will not be intimidated by a country like Iran,” Mrs. Merkel vowed. Her recommendation: to present a joint proposal by a large number of member states to an Iranian regime that she believes confronts a serious erosion of power from within.

The rumblings along Russia’s Western borders, from the Baltics to Ukraine, were addressed, too. Mrs. Merkel, fluent in Russian and English, may not have the cozy relationship with Mr. Putin enjoyed by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has joined Gasprom, the state-run Russian energy conglomerate. Still, Mrs. Merkel understands Mr. Putin’s mindset.

Speaking of German-American “friendship,” Mrs. Merkel refers to Russia in terms of a “strategic partnership” because she believes “we do not share as many values with Russia, yet, as we do with the United States.” She is said to remain optimistic Russia will develop in a “reasonable direction” if approached with consideration for its legitimate concerns, at home and abroad, but with firmness in assuring Moscow live up to obligations under international law and existing treaties.

Burdened with a sputtering economy, an unemployment rate hovering around 11 percent , a gross domestic product with an anemic 0.9 percent annual growth and a Grand Coalition with Social Democrats who have their own agenda, the Merkel government faces a full plate.

Though Karsten Voigt, coordinator of German-American Cooperation, maintains a majority of Germans continue to respect the United States, skepticism remains toward the Iraq war and domestic policies of the Bush administration.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Merkel’s visit may well revive trans-Atlantic relations on an issue-based pragmatic level, with Berlin providing an important bridge function between Washington and Moscow and perchance even the EU.

Viola Herms Drath is a member of the executive committee of the 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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