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What Are Friends For?

Great expectations from the Bush-Merkel alliance.

12:00 AM, Jul 24, 2006 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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With such stark contrasts in mind, how much can be realistically expected? As Jürgen Rüttgers, the governor of North Rhine Westphalia, explained to me a few months ago, "There is a German-American friendship. It is important and a large majority of Germans want to have it. They are fascinated by America. They love America." On the other hand, he said, "that doesn't mean they have to accept everything that happens in America, especially in the area of human rights, e.g., Guantánamo, or on the question of environmental protection. We have differences of opinion. But friends may have differing opinions. It is the difference in communication between friends and opponents. Friends never question the goodwill of the other partner. And if your friend has made a mistake, you try to help them. And vice versa."

"Any attempt to frame the good personal relationship between Merkel and Bush as a complete overhaul of the transatlantic relationship must result in mutual disappointment," says Werner Weidenfeld. "In the long run, Merkel won't manage to have a real impact on the American foreign policy agenda. And Americans tend to overestimate what Merkel could actually deliver given the constraints of a coalition government and the German political system." Germany is still suffering from massive unemployment--particularly in the former East--and is in the midst of debating painful welfare and health care reforms. Besides, says Weidenfeld, "the focus on the personal relationship also distracts from fundamental differences in the transatlantic relationship that need to be tackled--over issues such as risk and threat assessment, the willingness and determination to spend money on the military and to actually use it in combat or the definition of preemption."

When Horst von Buttlar is asked about the importance of the Merkel-Bush friendship, he counters by asking if the relationship between Bush and Schröder mattered. "It did, as we all know." Von Buttlar points out that "a few years ago nobody dared to hope that a German chancellor would be having a barbecue with Bush in some ancient communistic model-village [Trinwillershagen]. Although it was well staged, I think style is also substance in international relations. We have a new modus vivendi that will help to shape a policy in certain issues. . . . In Lebanon there is already a common ground: Both Germany and the United States think that Israel should be allowed to proceed a little further." At least for now.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.