The gift brought by a guest says a lot about his or her intentions. The love-sick romantic shows up with a dozen red roses. A box of Cohiba cigars is the classic gift between men in the West. Purebred horses and trained falcons, on the other hand, are the gift of choice among men in the Arab world. When German chancellors travel, their hosts usually receive the best Meissen porcelain, Junghans clocks or cases of Riesling wine.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reoriented German foreign policy back towards the United States.
The item in question is a world map drafted by Freiburg native Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. It is a map which shows a rough outline of the new continent, and for the first time uses a name that the immigrants in the New World would eventually adopt for their own: America.
The actual transfer of the map from Merkel to Steny Hoyer, the Democratic Majority Leader in the US House of Representatives, is more of a symbolic act; the historic chart has been in the United States since 2001. But when it was first sent to the United States six years ago, then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder did little more than shepherd the gift through the bureaucratic intricacies of getting an exit permit. Now, the current chancellor prefers to celebrate the act with fanfare, staging it as a gesture designed to underscore Germany's close friendship with America.
A New Trans-Atlantic Beginning?
It is virtually unprecedented in German history for a chancellor to be so unreservedly aligned with the US. Adenauer, the first chancellor of West Germany, saw America as a guarantor of freedom, but also perceived it as an occupation force. Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt, both Social Democratic (SPD) chancellors, were pro-American but innately skeptical.
Merkel, on the contrary, wants to expand Germany's close ties with the United States and is on the verge of making a pact with America the cornerstone of her foreign policy. Indeed, the resoluteness with which she has pursued this goal stands in conspicuous contrast with her government's lack of political progress back home in Germany.
A new beginning in trans-Atlantic relations? Out of consideration for her SPD coalition partners, Merkel has elected not to shine the spotlight too brightly on recent improvements in US-German relations -- indeed, her political modesty is one condition for the policy's success. Should she toot her own horn, she would likely alienate the SPD, her party's partner in Berlin's governing coalition.
Still, the contrast between Merkel and SPD-man Schröder, who courted Russian President Vladimir Putin and cultivated anti-American sentiment, couldn't be greater. Today's SPD, led by Kurt Beck, a skeptic on the subject of the United States, and represented in the cabinet by Foreign Minister and Schröder friend Frank-Walter Steinmeier, prefers a clearly distanced approach. Even in his inaugural speech, Steinmeier stressed his intent to be "when necessary (America's) constructively critical partner."
Merkel thinks differently. She is dedicated to the trans-Atlantic relationship and bases it on a fundamental political calculation. She is convinced that there can be no progress anywhere in opposition to the United States -- not in Europe and not in the Middle East. Even Europe's relationship with Asia requires coordination with Merkel's friends in the White House.
Though the West, with 12 percent of the world's population, is still responsible for 60 percent of global economic output, the balance is shifting. Two decades from now, Europeans and Americans will produce less than half of the world economic product -- and with only 10 percent of world population by then. The Asians, says Merkel, are pursuing a "divide and conquer" strategy, and the best way to counteract is for the West to join forces. Democracy, freedom and a market economy are the values that Merkel sees as binding the United States and Europe together.
Shaping Globalization with America
On Monday, the German chancellor plans to take a concrete step based on that belief. She, along with US President George W. Bush and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, will establish a "new trans-Atlantic economic partnership." The ultimate goal of this partnership is to fuse together what are still the world's two largest economic blocs into something Merkel calls "structures similar to a domestic market." Later, some sort of political structure may be added. Merkel is focused on "shaping globalization" -- not in opposition to, but together with the United States.
The chancellor is increasingly slipping into a role that once seemed reserved for the British. The people of Great Britain have always been proud of their close relationship with the United States and the British have long served as the Americans' intermediaries in Europe.
Since Iraq, though, that relationship has cooled. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to follow Bush into the Iraq war came with no strings attached. But the US president neglected to thank Blair for his loyalty. The world got a taste of Bush's condescending treatment of Blair when a table microphone was inadvertently left on during last summer's G8 summit in St. Petersburg. While the television crews were still filming images of the conference opening, the audio track revealed a very different side of the Bush-Blair relationship, when Bush greeted his vassal with the patronizing words: "Yo, Blair. How are you doing?" When Blair suggested a trip to the Middle East, Bush, clearly bored with the conversation, told Blair: "I think Condi's going to go pretty soon."
The US president had good reason not to take his partner seriously anymore. Blair hadn't fulfilled Bush's expectations -- in fact, not by a long shot. With the help of Britain, Europe was divided, but it was not brought in line behind the Americans. The continental powers, France and Germany, which held de facto vetoes in European institutions, were too powerful.
Since taking office, Merkel has been courted like no other world leader. She has already been honored with the special privilege of staying at Blair House, across the street from the White House, and she has dined in the president's private quarters. During one short visit she was even given a day room at Blair House to relax and recuperate, an honor that even officials at the White House press office couldn't recall having ever been bestowed on any foreign leader.
These ins and outs of diplomatic protocol alone indicate that Merkel has ended what US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns called the "trans-Atlantic war." Merkel is the new Blair, but without the suspicion -- so far, at least -- of having become anyone's poodle.
This view of Merkel as being a tough but fair politician has come largely as a result of her willingness to speak her mind on the foreign stage. And with no one has that been clearer than Berlin's currently tense relationship with Russia's President Putin. Merkel had hardly gotten into office before she distanced herself from her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, and declared that Germany does "not have as many values in common with Russia as it does with America." She was quick to downgrade the "friendship" with the Russians -- which Schröder lost no opportunity to trumpet -- to a "strategic partnership."
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