German-American relations are anxious as Angela Merkel makes her first visit as German chancellor to the United States. The U.S. shares much of the blame for the anxiety, which is especially regrettable given that Mrs. Merkel made it clear she intends to make improving German-American relations a priority of her leadership.
A collective sigh of relief was breathed in Washington — and in some European halls of power — when Mrs. Merkel assumed the reins from her predecessor (the reflexively anti-American Gerhard Schroeder). For example, though she may have disagreed with the U.S. position that Turkey should become a full European Union member, she would not rub her disagreements in President Bush’s face and instead was much likelier to keep any grievances out of the public arena.
While this does not constitute a ringing endorsement, it is as close as one can get from a nation where (according to the German Marshall Fund’s Trans-Atlantic Trends 2005 polls) 83 percent of the population disapproves of Mr. Bush’s international policies.
The situation is not helped by the fact Mrs. Merkel’s term has so far been dogged by a series of issues that undermine her attempts to bring Germany back into the Atlanticist fold.
First, she faced the story of the German national Khaled al-Masri grabbed by American rendition teams, tortured and wrongly accused of participating in al Qaeda. He is suing the CIA and former Director George Tenet, a case that is an ongoing thorn in the side of European-American relations.
Second, there is the ongoing story of the CIA flights that used German (amongst others) airbases to transport prisoners to secret prisons in Eastern Europe.
These tales of torture and abuse have an even stronger resonance among Germans, still haunted by the sins of their forefathers. For an example of how strongly the German people feel about human rights, one must merely look at the reaction of the Bundestag (German parliament) to the rumblings about the European Union possibly lifting its arms embargo against China. Disagreeing with Mr. Schroeder’s official position, the Bundestag approved a motion that made future weapons sales to China dependent on the country signing on to the United Nations pact on political and human rights.
This in particular is something the United States should note carefully. Here we have the traditionally anti-American Green party (along with most of the German parliament) citing tensions over Taiwan and “massive deficits” in human rights as reasons to impede future arms sales to China, a stand closer to U.S. foreign policy than that espoused by their own leader at the time, Gerhard Schroeder.
When one considers this, and that the new German chancellor has openly said she is eager to improve German-American relations (and also has indicated that “lifting the arms embargo is not on the agenda of the new government”) the ground would seem ripe for reconciliation.
However, recent U.S. actions have proven very unappealing to European publics. While stories of rendition in Europe and the ongoing treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners may not seem important to Americans, they have great weight in Europe.
Unlike large portions of the American public, most Europeans do not feel one must achieve security by any means necessary. Whatever Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may say about Europeans benefiting as much as Americans from whatever intelligence may be gathered, Europeans do not perceive the threat level the same way.
As a result, trying to sell the “war on terrorism” in Europe the same way it is sold in the United States will never work. Rather, new definitions are needed, and the war in Iraq needs to be detached from the war on terror in American parlance (at least when discussing it with Europeans).
Otherwise, American policymakers will constantly find themselves butting against a wall of hostility from European publics, and consequently their politicians. While we are told relations at an operational level between U.S. and European counterterrorist operatives remain on good, a constant stream of stories about extraordinary rendition, torture, secret prisons and flights will deeply corrode the connection, and may even damage operational cooperation, thereby weakening both sides’ defenses against fundamentalist terrorism.
A renewed American effort is needed to woo European publics at the grass roots. Grand trans-Atlantic initiatives won’t find counterparts in the European halls of power, where leaders are preoccupied with turning the EU experiment around and mending their economies. Instead, Washington needs to reach out to the citizens of Europe, and persuade them that the U.S. fight is just and the means legitimate. Otherwise, the trans-Atlantic chill will continue to harden at a public level, something that will eventually filter into European decisions in elections. While leaders may be unable mend trans-Atlantic relations, hostile leaders can certainly damage them.
Raffaello Pantucci is research associate in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.