At the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush proposed a partnership in leadership with Germany. Twelve years later, another President Bush has refused to congratulate a German leader on his electoral victory, and his national security adviser and defense secretary have publicly complained about the “poisoned” state of U.S.-German relations.
How could matters have deteriorated so far, so fast? And what can be done to make them right?
U.S. officials contend that the blame lies squarely at the feet of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who in the final weeks of the campaign emphasized his government’s strong opposition to waging war against Iraq. Then in the campaign’s final days, things got particularly ugly when the justice minister in Schroeder’s cabinet compared Bush’s actions to those of Hitler.
In fact, there is both less and more to the current spat. Words expressed during a campaign—and undiplomatic responses from the U.S. ambassador to Berlin—will cause senior leaders to be peeved temporarily, but they should not substantially affect what remains one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships.
It is also important to note what did not happen during these elections. Unlike in many other parts of Europe, extremism lost at the polls in Germany. The big victors in this election were the Greens, though their success was due principally to having the most popular politician as their leader. The big losers were parties and politicians tainted with extremism. The Free Democrats fared poorly, in part because their deputy leader injected anti-Semitism into the campaign. Parties on the far left and right received less than 5 percent of the total vote. And Schroeder’s Social Democrats, who were inching ahead in the final days, may have lost a point or two because of the fallout from the justice minister’s remarks.
At the same time, the disagreement between Schroeder and Bush involves more than irritation over electoral rhetoric. The differences over Iraq are real. We may deplore rhetoric that at times went over the top (as when Schroeder accused Bush’s Iraq policy of being an “adventure”). We may join others in Europe in their disappointment that the German government arrived at its position without any consultation. And we can worry about the emphasis on a “German way.” But we must not dismiss Germany’s stance simply as politically inspired.
Wrong though it is, Schroeder’s position on Iraq is widely shared in Europe. He opposes unilateral military action and believes the emphasis must be on weapons inspections, not regime change. And he is worried about what will happen in Iraq and the wider region if Saddam Hussein is deposed.
Schroeder has made this case in precisely the kind of straightforward, principled way the Bush administration so admires—at least when it is the one making the case. As Secretary of State Colin Powell explained the administration’s foreign policy modus operandi, Bush “makes sure people know what he believes in. And then he tries to persuade others that is the correct position. When it does not work, then we will take the position we believe is correct, and I hope the Europeans are left with a better understanding of the way in which we want to do business.” In the case of Iraq, Schroeder is giving the Bush administration a taste of its own medicine.
Of course, Schroeder’s stance on Iraq was also politically shrewd. He was down in the polls just six weeks before the elections by almost 10 points, and his strong opposition to U.S. policy helped him climb back on top.
But this raises an important question: Why did Schroeder believe that opposing Bush on Iraq would help him politically? Part of the answer clearly is that the pacifist streak runs deep in Germany. But part is surely also that American policies over the past 18 months have helped create a climate in which politicians believe it pays for them to run against America.
From global warming to the Middle East, biological weapons to the International Criminal Court, the Bush administration has pursued policies that ignored German (and European) concerns. And it has often done so with little or no consultation. Such unilateralism has now convinced many that, on Iraq, the United States is more interested in getting rid of Hussein than enforcing Iraq’s compliance with U.N. resolutions—a policy few in Europe support. In Germany at least, the costs of Bush’s unilateralism are evident.
With the elections over, there is plenty of fence-mending to do. Schroeder needs to emphasize that his disagreement is with Iraq policy, not with America or its president. Bush needs to understand that gaining support for his policies requires give-and-take over the substance. Turning to the United Nations on Iraq was a beginning. Bush can now build on that by calling Schroeder to congratulate him, to tell him he has heard and understood Germany’s worries, and then to ask him to support a tough new U.N. resolution demanding that Baghdad finally comply with its disarmament obligations or face the full wrath of the international community. Such magnanimity would be hard for Schroeder to ignore.
Germany now finds itself in the worst security dilemma since it rejoined the West in the 1950s by becoming a member of NATO and the EU. Its hoped-for strategic partners, Russia and China, are increasingly aggressive players in Europe. Within the EU, populists and authoritarians are challenging the liberal, postwar consensus. Even countries that share that ideal, such as France, Spain and the Baltic states, disagree about the future of the European project. America’s elites stand firm in defense of U.S. security guarantees for Europe — but their president misses no opportunity to side with autocrats and show contempt for a rules-based order.