Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Chancellor Merkel promises a new start for German-American relations

Angela Merkel, Germany's new chancellor, is the complete oppposite of her predecesor, Gerhard Schroeder. She brings a can-do attitude, a refreshing lack of sloganeering, and most importantly, a willingness to return to an Atlanticist policy.

John Vinocur of the IHT ($) likes what he sees in the runup to her American visit:
[...] An artfully professional mediation job at a European Union summit before Christmas that won her neighbors' real respect and recalled Germany's even-handed European leadership role of the Helmut Kohl years. Polls that put her over 60 percent in the country's mind as a good chancellor. Two sets of hostages freed. Even a series of encouraging economic statistics.

And now, from the point of view of the Bush administration, there's the arrival in Washington of a German leader with a positive view of the United States' capabilities in the world. An upbeat notion of America from abroad, looking beyond or around Iraq, from a chancellor who hasn't based her legitimacy at home on portraying President George W. Bush's grief in Baghdad as a kind of American original sin.

It's not that Merkel is in any way a Margaret Thatcher, who was ready to buck up Ronald Reagan to act on a shared global vision in which she sometimes supplied the urging and America the power.

But Merkel is a leader who focused her first major speech on talking about freedom to a Germany historically obsessed with stability as a greater virtue. Who believes Europe can never become strong and united in opposition to America. [...]

Karsten Voigt, the Social Democrat who is a holdover as coordinator for German-American affairs in the Foreign Ministry, has caught the new line: "Her positive America vision will have a real effect on policy. Freedom - it's very important to her. She means it." [...]

Voigt's boss, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, will be part of Merkel's delegation. Respectful of him, the Merkel chancellery nonetheless runs German policy toward Europe and the world. Here are a few examples, registered by visitors, of its anything-but-adversarial stance in relation to areas of American concern (no deep-reading or textual exegesis required):

A much more dubious attitude toward Vladimir Putin, whose Russia was shown in polls last year as more valued by Germans in terms of good relations than the United States. Russian threats to Ukraine are regarded here as a significant error, although one that will not undo the German firms' deal with Gazprom on a pipeline to supply Germany, bypassing Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states. [...]
The Economist reports that some doubt that the Baltic Sea pipeline will be built.

Here Vinocur gets to what matters geopolitically:
A clear refusal to go along with French efforts to lift the EU's embargo on arms sales to China, while maintaining cooperation with France as a vital element of German European policy.

An effort to shore up NATO's central place as the West's strategic forum, emphasized by Merkel's making it her first stop on her first official visit to Brussels. The EU, in the chancellor's formulation, is no longer portrayed as an eventual alternative or replacement for NATO.

All of this is really Merkel doing what she said she'd do before the election when she argued that Germany must again seek "to fulfill its double role." That is, a balanced foreign policy, based on the tandem of good trans-Atlantic and European relations. [...]

It's not overdone to believe these choices involve Merkel's deepest convictions. She is forever a child of the Soviet orbit and four decades of totalitarianism growing up in East Germany. In Merkel's mind, the Reagan years signaled the downfall of the old order and German unification, not marching in protest against America's missile and Star Wars programs.

Yet, in Washington, Merkel will try to economize her strength of the moment. There will be no joint, ridiculously hollow declarations like the bombastic German-American Alliance for the 21st century that Bush and Schröder signed at the White House in March 2004. This time, an expression of partnership can be subtler and more believable. German public opinion would gag otherwise.
Too true. The Germans simply aren't ready to get close to America. Anti-Americanism continues to be the daily pap served up by most media, and it is readily swallowed by most.
Some cautions. Germany's economy has not reawakened from its years of structural slumber. The most optimistic estimates for 2006 run to a growth rate of roughly 1.8 percent, not enough to significantly dent unemployment of about 11 percent.

Less than two months into the Merkel era, there has been none of the necessary legislation involving new and painful economic reform. Confronted with the predestined impermanence of a coalition between rivals, her government's life depends on creating jobs and confidence.

For the moment, the partners have just begun to squabble about spending and investment programs that could crush a consumer revival as easily as propel it. Matthias Platzeck, the new Social Democratic chairman, unlike his predecessors, has never said never to the idea that his party might one day jump the Grand Coalition to ally itself with the Left Party and its nostalgia for Marxist economics.

The truth is that behind Merkel's individual popularity, the polls also show that more voters are already dissatisfied with the coalition than approve of it. Sometime in the next months, that disconnect could begin to weigh on this week's rapprochement in Washington. [...]

The appeal of easy popularity through America baiting is always present. Although Merkel personally seems above the tactic, others in German politics are doubtless ready to pick up that cudgel.