Events

Current State and Future Prospects of German-American Relations

February 24, 2003 // 11:00pm

Report by Dr. Gebhard Schweigler, Professor, National War College, National Defense University, Washington, DC

A transatlantic train wreck, an ever deepening rift, tectonic shifts, intense storms – such are the dramatic analogies applied to the current state of transatlantic relations as policies towards Iraq divide erstwhile allies. Transatlantic relations, and within it the German-American relationship, are too important to be wrecked by differences over how to deal with Saddam Hussein, as many more fundamental interests are at stake: this is the appeal of those who seek to avoid train wrecks and to overcome transatlantic rifts.

Atlantik-Brücke, Germany’s premier private organization devoted, for more than fifty years, to bridging transatlantic gaps, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, committed to the principles of democratic dialogue that will result in better understanding and thus better policies, convened a meeting of policymakers, parlia-men-tarians, and scholars to initiate such a democratic dialogue about the current state and future prospects of German-American relations, at a time when principal policymakers barely seem to be talking with each other. Alas, that dialogue was not easy to establish. Whereas the German side was prominently represented across its full political spectrum, the American side lacked in such broad representation: only one moderate Republican member of Congress chose to attend. The resultant dialogue was lively, serious, and productive, but it was also somewhat one-sided. The most outspoken (partisan) criticism of Bush administration poli-cies was offered by American participants; and it was German participants who rejected such criti-cism and expressed their underlying trust in the American political process. Thus the conference proved at once highly valuable and deeply frustrating, in that the basic issues were fully aired, but only among a severely limited range of partici-pants. Many more such efforts will be required to re-establish a meaningful transatlantic dialogue across the full political spectrum on both sides of the Atlantic.

The underlying problems currently causing transatlantic divergences were readily identified. On the German side, a new generation of politicians is in power that has not personally experienced the Second World War and which, therefore, has drawn different lessons from that aspect of German history than did prior generations. Aided by the disappearance of the common threat that used to glue the alliance together, this genera-tion no longer gives primary emphasis to good relations with the United States. Instead, it allowed Germany to be maneuvered into a position which Germany traditionally had sought to avoid at all costs: to rely more on France than on the United States. When Vice President Cheney laid out American war plans regarding Iraq at the beginning of the Ger-man election campaign, Chancellor Schröder, uninformed and thus unaware of this development, felt betrayed and reacted emotionally by announcing his government’s unalterable opposition to any “adventure” in Iraq. As campaign rhetoric took over, moral-izing increased, stereotypes prevailed, tolerance for other views diminished, and Ger-many found itself ever more isolated from Washington and drawn closer to Paris. Eventually, Schröder (in part thanks to Cheney) won his reelection campaign. But in the process, Berlin lost all room for maneuver, locked into a position from which it could not move without a significant loss of credibility. Along the way, it failed to engage in common threat analyses and in helping to develop joint strategies for dealing with “rogue” and failed states. Insisting on multilateral approaches, on the presentation of hard evidence, and on extensive analyses of likely consequences of a war against Iraq, the German government neglected to consider other strategic interests, not least the future of America’s role in Germany, Europe, and NATO. Germans insist that these policies in no way reflect anti-Americanism. They are, as an American participant argued, a long-term consequence of Germany’s “11/9” experience: the fall of the Wall, the end of the Cold War, German reunification, and European unification. They reflect, in the words of a German participant, too much Kant and too little Hobbes in Germany’s political discourse.

On the American side, “9/11” contributed to a strengthening of a Hobbesian view of the world. Even before the terrorist attacks, the Bush administration had begun to deal all too arrogantly with some of its allies’ major concerns (evident in the rejection of the Kyoto Protocols and the treaty establishing an International Criminal Court). Afterwards, it took even more of a unilateralist approach, dismissing its friends’ concerns and riding roughshod over their interests. Eventual efforts at damage control, such as seeking UN approval for military actions against Iraq, came too late in the face of prior (and con-sistent) simplistic rhetoric, arrogant behavior, and rejection of multilateralism as irrele-vant. The Bush administration had burned up too much good will and frightened its allies (as well as some of its own population) more than it was perhaps frightening Saddam Hussein. Its grand goals of restructuring the world (beginning with a democratic restruct-uring of the Greater Middle East as a result of a war against Iraq) meet with considerably more doubt than approval. Strangely enough, in this case remnant European Hobbesian fears seem to prevail: the world is too complex (that is, nasty and brutish), and individual problems are too intractable, for one power, or a single approach, to effect a Kantian world order leading to perpetual peace.

What kind of “lateralism” might help to bridge the transatlantic divide? Selective multilateralism as practiced by either the United States or by some European countries (under French leadership) is unlikely to work. Europe and the United States must find a way (back) towards some more comprehensive form of multilateralism. Going their separate ways (or worse, in the German case, following any kind of Sonderweg) cannot be in the long-term interest of either side. But how to get from here to there? There was little disagreement as to the preferred ways of closer cooperation, but hardly any agree-ment on the likelihood that they could be achieved.

Presumably the easiest way to get Germany and the United States back into sync would be a change of government in both countries (unless, of course, as some argued, the differences are less personal or partisan and much more structural in nature). On the American side, representatives from the Democratic party claimed that a President of their own (backed by a Congress controlled by the Democrats) would act much less uni-laterally and pursue much less risky policies, that is, act more in consonance with America’s old and new European allies. On the German side, it was equally clear that a government controlled by the Christian Democrats would work strenuously to seek a better relationship with the United States, controlled by Democrats or not. The concurrent visit of Angela Merkel, chairperson of the CDU, to Washington – where she was prominently received (as detailed by a member of her delegation at the end of the con-ference) – indicated that a change of government in Germany might indeed contribute to an improvement in German-American relations. There was, however, no speculation whether an early change of government might be in the cards. In the meantime, as some German participants argued, the possibility of a Bush-Schröder reconciliation of sorts should not be ruled out, as that would be in the interests of both sides.

The future of transatlantic relations depends not only on Germany, of course, but ever more on developments within the European Union. Conference participants raised many more issues than they offered answers. As the EU deepens and widens – and engages in a process of constitution-writing – will it emerge more along the lines of French approaches or German ideas? That is, will it become a „Europe of fatherlands“, possibly under French leadership, defining its identity as un-, perhaps even anti-American – as an important pillar of multipolarity and as an independent bridge to the Third World? Or will it accept some kind of federalist structure, borrowing heavily from the United States of America, and looking towards close relations with the US as one of its defining characteristics? Will it succeed in overcoming its own internal divisions (which are as marked as transatlantic rifts) and thus become, as a more effective EU, a more reliable partner of the United States? Is a united Europe, in fact, in America’s strategic interest? Or does it not matter any longer, as the United States defines its inter-national interests in terms of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction – a world view in which Europe might play an increasingly less relevant role? To avoid such a develop-ment, the European Union should seek to align its own internal development more closely with the transatlantic relationship: Europe must become, or remain, relevant to the United States, just as America is still highly relevant to European developments.

Interestingly enough, NATO as the traditional link between the United States and Europe received much less attention in conference discussions. Absent the glue of a common threat, it is no longer as closely knit as it once was; its member countries have common interests, but they do not share one single interest of equal importance to all. Yet it has worked well even in the recent past (Balkan policies from Bosnia to Dayton and Kosovo were mentioned as examples), and if only its leaders and institutions worked on a common basis, it could perform similarly vital tasks in the future. One problem, it was pointed out, is that NATO is designed to defend, not to attack (for which reason reaching a decision on support for Turkey in the case of an attack on Iraq proved so difficult, not least because Germany did not want to grant Turkey a free hand in Kurdish controlled Northern Iraq). Consulting on common strategies in the post-9/11 world has, therefore, become more difficult. Yet NATO should remain the center of consultations, as well as the primary anchor for the American presence in Europe.

How all of these developments will play out in the future depends very much on what happens in Iraq. Proceeding from the assumption that a war had become nearly unavoidable, conference participants discussed a number of post-war issues. Will those opposed to a war engage in post-war rebuilding efforts or remain on the sidelines, even if – as feared – the region dissolves in spasms of instability? Will the United States have to expend considerable resources in Iraq for a long time to come (and thus have fewer resources available elsewhere)? Is Iraq only a precursor for similar (American) involve-ment elsewhere, such as Iran and Syria? Should the allies, in fact, get together in design-ing appropriate strategies for dealing with such highly problematic countries as Iran, Syria, and Pakistan? Will the peace process receive a new stimulus (perhaps under the aegis of the Quartet approach) or will Israel and the Palestinians be left to their own (obviously inadequate) devices? Again, many more questions than answers – except for the compelling answer that close transatlantic cooperation is urgently needed.

Faced with an overwhelming number of seemingly unsolvable problems, con-fer-ence participants sought to take some solace from the fact that transatlantic relations appear solid in many areas, above all in the economic sphere. Hope was expressed that, precisely in order to protect these solid relations, transatlantic cooperation in currently problematic areas will surely have to be improved. To be sure, both Europe (and especially Germany, at times described as the sick man of Europe, and no longer its locomotive) and the United States are confronted with a whole range of economic problems. But these are mostly internal in nature, and not due to transatlantic disagreements. Where transatlantic problems arise, they are predominantly little ones, precisely because European and American economies are so heavily intertwined. Economic institutions are functioning more effectively than their political counterparts. By and large, conference participants agreed that Europe (and again especially Germany) must provide for reforms that lead towards better competition (and thus more growth) and away from social deficit spending that has turned into a dangerous habit-forming drug. It must also tackle increasingly troublesome social issues such as immigration and skewed demographic developments. The United States, in turn, seems about to engage in a return of Reagonomics (including a shift from taxing income to taxing consumption) with uncertain prospects. External (current account) and internal imbalances (such as too much defense spending, especially in the aftermath of an Iraq war) could lead to even more uncertainty and instability. On the whole, however, con-ference participants seemed in agreement that, while times are difficult, the economic foundations of the transatlantic relationship are essentially solid. After some heavy soul-searching for most of the day, this conclusion of the conference produced an almost palpable sense of relief that just maybe the current and future state of German-American relations is not beyond hope and repair.

 

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