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Managing Expectations

Will Merkel's visit end the transatlantic rift?

11:00 PM, Jan 5, 2006 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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NEXT WEEK, Angela Merkel arrives in Washington to meet with President Bush for the first time in her new role as chancellor of Germany. As the Atlantic Times put it, she is "the most powerful woman in the German-speaking region since Maria Theresa (1717-1780)." The visit is long overdue.

Her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, was famous for railing against the United States and the Bush administration, much to the detriment of transatlantic relations. During the German elections of 2002, Schröder quite publicly opposed invading Iraq, saying he wouldn't "click my heels" and follow the American way into war. He insisted his country would instead follow a "German way." It was the sort of rhetoric that raised eyebrows even in Europe--and particularly in Eastern Europe.

Amid statewide elections in September, his Social Democratic party ran posters showing coffins draped in American flags and the line, "She would have sent soldiers"--she referring to Merkel. In late October, with only a few weeks left in power, the chancellor couldn't resist mentioning Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath at a gathering in Hannover. "I do not want to name any catastrophes where you can see what happens if organized state action is absent," he said. "I could name countries, but the position I still hold forbids it. But everyone knows I mean America." Thankfully he no longer holds that position. In fact, he's since taken a lucrative job with Russian oil giant Gazprom, lobbying the same pipeline he pushed for while in office.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there have been repeated attempts to mend the transatlantic rift--with middling success at the state level. (On the other hand, says one German counterterrorism expert, "we have always been close on the working level" in the war on terror.) But it wasn't until November 22, when the chancellery switched hands, that analysts saw a serious opportunity for diplomatic change.

But what sort of change can we realistically expect? "The issue will be substance versus style," said Karen Donfried last October at a German Marshall Fund symposium. Donfried, the senior director at GMF, pointed out that "Schröder did one thing and said another. Sure they were helping us out--a lot, even--but by 'merely' what he said, he was delegitimizing Operation Iraqi Freedom." She continued, "If Merkel simply continues doing what is being done but says positive things and explains honestly [to the German people] why they are helping, that would be hugely significant."

German forces are currently deployed in the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, and Afghanistan, the latter of which represents the largest contingent--comprising some 2,000 soldiers--within the International Security Assistance Force. Several German soldiers have also been killed by suicide bombers.

"Concerning Afghanistan and the Balkans," says Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, "there is enough to allow Merkel to say that they are already doing a lot. In terms of doing more, she might first ask the Pentagon to back off and allow foreign companies to be granted licenses for contracts such as those dealing with electricity." Like Donfried, Janes senses the new chancellor will maintain Germany's current foreign policy but change the style with which certain disagreements are handled. "The Germans will want to weigh in on transatlantic relations but not act as a counterweight."

On a visit to Washington early last year, Wolfgang Schäuble, the former head of the CDU and current minister of the interior, echoed these remarks. "Although we too would have disagreed with the United States over the war, we would not have done it the way Schröder did." (Schäuble also called for "regime change--in Berlin.") Last summer, he spoke with National Security adviser Stephen Hadley at the White House and rather unexpectedly saw Bush himself. In the end, the president spent close to an hour with Schäuble in the Oval Office, discussing the future of transatlantic relations and, according to diplomatic sources, came away deeply impressed by the minister.