Merkel's Pact with America Germany Rediscovers the US as a Partner

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reoriented Germany away from Russia and toward the United States. Expanded economic ties are just one area of renewed cooperation. But could Germany get burned like the British did?

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.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reoriented German foreign policy back towards the United States.

Foto: AFP

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel will present an especially generous gift during her trip to the United States this week. At a Monday ceremony in the Great Hall of the US Library of Congress, she will hand over to the Americans something Germans would normally be barred from even taking out of the country: a piece of Germany's national cultural heritage.

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.

For Merkel, though, the closeness with the US is much more than mere symbolism. She sees America as "a force that has brought freedom to the peoples of the world." She now plans to make the most of that freedom by further strengthening the two countries' economic ties. In the storm of globalization, the United States and Europe plan to expand their cooperation to benefit both countries.

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.

It was welcome news for the Americans when Angela Merkel decided to run for the office of German chancellor. Merkel had been a vocal opponent of Schröder's policies before the Iraq War, even when it meant putting her own political reputation on the line. Merkel even wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post entitled: "Schroeder Doesn't Speak for All Germans."

Special Privilege

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."

Can America Be Relied upon as a Partner?

As a former East German, Merkel has a keen perception of growing signs of dictatorship and curbs on civil liberties in Russia. The murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the violent suppression of protests, as happened recently in Moscow and St. Petersburg, have only heightened her skepticism. It infuriates Putin when Merkel denounces the conditions of former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky's imprisonment or government pressure on non-governmental organizations, which she has been quick to do on several occasions.

Putin and Merkel are divided by their personal histories. Both experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the beginnings of the collapse of the Soviet Union in East Germany, but on different sides of the barricades. Merkel, then a physicist at the East Berlin Academy of Sciences, quickly became involved in the civil rights movement. She took advantage of the new freedoms and drafted flyers. Meanwhile Putin, then a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet intelligence agency, the KGB, was busy burning intelligence records at his office in Dresden. The end of the Soviet superpower marked the beginning of a new era for Merkel. For Putin, it was the collapse of an old one.

Now, Merkel routinely repels the Kremlin leader's overtures. When Putin offered Germany an exclusive partnership in the exploration and exploitation of the giant Stockmann natural gas field in the Barents Sea in October, the chancellor -- in sharp contrast to the Baltic Sea pipeline project that Schröder and Putin launched, more or less on their own -- coolly declined, citing a common European energy policy as an obstacle to cooperation with Russia.

Vague and Noncommital

At home, Merkel has been careful not to step on any toes among Germans, whose once-enthusiastic attitudes toward America have suffered tremendously, especially as a result of the Iraq war. Whenever siding with the Americans and against the Russians appears too risky for her -- as in the current controversy over the missile defense shield -- she flees into the relative safety of the vague, noncommittal statement.

The Bush-burned British are following this balancing act with sympathy. The special relationship, the Economist noted pointedly, comes with the "big danger ... that America may expect too much from Germany." The British magazine even warned Merkel against becoming too cozy with the Americans: "Even this political acrobat could lose her balance if she is hugged too hard."

For both sides, the tangible outcome of the new trans-Atlantic friendship is currently mixed. Despite an omnipresent and optimistic sense of embarking on something new, there have been no breakthroughs so far. In the Middle East, for example, Washington, after prolonged hesitation, revived the Middle East peace quartet -- made up of the United States, the EU, Russia and the United Nations -- as a forum for new peace initiatives early this year. However, the US government was not prepared to show more flexibility in dealing with the Palestinians or to apply more pressure on the Israelis.

Iran is another example. In response to German pressure, the United States has agreed to accept new offers to Tehran's mullahs in an effort to curb the country's budding nuclear program. But the US continues to balk when it comes to the central issue of recognizing Iran as a regional power.

Cooperation on climate policy can be characterized as nothing less than miserable, even when seen in the most positive light. Merkel's successful plans to set EU-wide targets for the reduction of carbon emissions have not been received enthusiastically across the Atlantic.

The recently forged economic pact with America has also encountered birth pangs. Any significant thoughts about a free trade zone between the United States and the EU had to be streamlined. Merkel, speaking before the German parliament's Europe committee, called the concept "a fascinating idea." But it was asking too much of the elites on both sides of the Atlantic.

Differences to Become a Thing of the Past

The Americans were unwilling to eliminate tariffs designed to protect their farmers, and Merkel's advisors were concerned that the world's two largest economic blocs going it alone would put an end, once and for all, to negotiations over the liberalization of global trade, or the so-called Doha Round. The European Commission also proved to be uncooperative, with EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson denouncing a Western alliance as protectionist.

As a result, the chancellor has toned down her ambitions. Instead of eliminating tariffs, she proposed getting rid of so-called non-tariff barriers to trade, which also impede the unrestricted flow of goods. For example, the two economic regions have different licensing procedures for chemical and cosmetic products, automobiles are subject to different safety inspections before being allowed on the road, and companies use different methods to compute their earnings, even though their stocks are traded in financial markets on both sides of the Atlantic.

If Merkel has her way, these differences will become a thing of the past. After protracted, detailed negotiations with his counterparts in Brussels and Washington, Jens Weidmann, Merkel's top economic advisor, presented a "new trans-Atlantic economic partnership," which will be signed at Monday's ceremony.

The goal of the agreement is to make licensing procedures more uniform, or at least to ensure mutual recognition of such procedures. Regulatory authorities in Europe and the United States will be instructed to improve cooperation. The two sides also plan to cooperate more, and more effectively, in the development of future-oriented technologies in the energy sector.

One thing is already clear, and that is that industry on both sides of the ocean will benefit from the plan. Companies will be able to pass on to their customers the billions they stand to save or use the savings for additional investments. One way or the other, consumers will also benefit.

Merkel as Warmonger?

In a mixture of generosity and flattery, the Americans have opted to give the chancellor sole credit for not only coming up with the plan, but also making it happen, and are calling it "the Merkel initiative." Nevertheless, Bush's hopes that his charm offensive could transform the chancellor into a stronger ally in the multi-front war against terror have not been fulfilled. When it comes to Iraq, the new chancellor has not deviated from her predecessor's policy. The Germans are not sending troops to Iraq, and they have only agreed to provide training assistance outside the country, which essentially means no training at all.

Merkel's caution in dealing with the military ambitions of the United States is not based solely on opinion polls, which point to a clear opposition to the war among Germans. She must also keep a constant eye on the SPD. Her coalition partner views any rapprochement with Washington with great suspicion, and many in the SPD are merely waiting for the right opportunity to paint themselves as peacemakers and Merkel as a warmonger.

The chancellor is especially wary of her foreign minister. Although Steinmeier has distanced himself from the abrasive tone favored by his former mentor Schröder, officials at the chancellery are convinced that he still maintains close ties to the former chancellor. Merkel's advisors believe that reports that the two have had a falling out are nothing but misinformation put out by the Foreign Ministry to cover up the fact that the two men are, in fact, quite close.

When Steinmeier gives a speech, officials at the chancellery are always anxious to receive the transcript. When the topic is especially sensitive, as was the case with Steinmeier's recent presentation to NATO, Thomas de Maizière, the chief of staff in the chancellery, asks for an advance copy -- a request that only irritates the foreign minister.

Still, Steinmeier knows that Merkel, as did Schröder, thinks like a head of government and pays close attention to who holds the foreign policy reins. Unlike her predecessor, though, the current chancellor prefers to hold them in the background.

By Ralf Beste, Jan Fleischhauer, Georg Mascolo, Christian Reiermann, Matthias Schepp, and Gabor Steingart

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan