The only person viewed less enthusiastically by the Bush administration than Gerhard Schröder is Jacques Chirac. But Berlin has a new sheriff -- Angela Merkel of the conservative Christian Democrats. What's the buzz on Merkel in Washington's conservative circles?
SCHMITT: Everybody is pleased that she's now the chancellor. There aren't any huge expectations that somehow relations between Germany and the United States will be transformed overnight or approach anything like they were before the Cold War ended. But conservatives are happy that Gerhard Schröder is gone and that the relationship will get back on a more even keel.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: In the run-up to the Iraq war, Merkel traveled to Washington to express her support for Bush's policy as a member of the opposition. Will she be rewarded in any way for her earlier loyalties?
SCHMITT: This is an administration that doesn't pay off other countries for agreeing with their policies. What you will see is much more willingness to listen to her side of the issues and more willingness to cooperate with the German government where there are specific concerns.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Bush has said he will meet with Merkel for a full three hours. Is that unusual for Bush?
SCHMITT: It is unusual -- it's partially because there's a host of items that have to be discussed. Iraq. Iran. Russia is becoming a much more important issue for Europe and the United States. The Bush administration is not interested in having Europe, or Germany in particular, be so dependent on a single source for energy. We don't want our closest allies to be at the mercy of any particular government, especially one that is becoming far less democratic. Energy diversification is necessary so that we can have allies who are more likely to be cooperative and helpful on the agenda we have.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Iran is going to be an important item in talks between Merkel and Bush. What do you think Washington will ask of Germany?
SCHMITT: The next step is to get a vote from the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer this to the Security Council in New York. Then obviously people will have to sort out what's going to happen at the Security Council and what sanctions they will try to impose. In private, there will be intense initial discussions about what planning might look like. The key here is an agreement that this needs Security Council attention.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Merkel has maintained a highly conciliatory tone towards Washington, but she has also expressed criticism. During Condoleezza Rice's visit to Berlin in December, Merkel claimed the Secretary of State conceded the erroneous kidnapping of an innocent German national by the CIA as part of its "extraordinary renditions" program had been a "mistake." The State Department later denied Merkel's statement. And this week Merkel indirectly called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison. Do these developments threaten Germany's fresh start with Washington?
SCHMITT: People have taken notice, but it hasn't been a major matter. Some of those issues are far more important in Europe than they are in the US. Still, in contrast to the previous chancellor, when Merkel makes her comments about Guantanamo or any of these other issues, she's likely to get more of a hearing than Schröder, who would have been viewed as raising the issue to bolster his own political fortunes at home. When her comments were published, people here said, OK, this something people need to talk about and we will do that when she's here.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Merkel can offer conciliatory gestures, but to what degree does she have the power to get relations back on track?
SCHMITT: Look at the example of Schröder and Chirac. I'll admit there were things the Bush administration did in its early days and in the run-up to the Iraq war that made relations with its trans-Atlantic partners on the Continent more difficult. On the other hand, Chirac and Schröder were in some ways looking for a fight. It makes a huge difference if you have leaders in Paris and Berlin who aren't looking for a fight. No one thinks we'll somehow resurrect the grand old days. On the other hand I think that when some people talk about how the relationship between the US and Europe has changed since the end of the Cold War, they overestimate the differences and underestimate the degree to which having leaders who can get along makes a big difference.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, Merkel has a bit of a Colin Powell problem. She's part of a fragile government coalition of Germany's traditional opposition parties. Her foreign minister was also an architect of Schröder's anti-American positions. Is there a fear in Washington that she won't have the power to back up her conciliatory gestures?
SCHMITT: There's recognition she's the head of a coalition government. But on the issue of Iran, her political standing will be supported by French and British views that will help her buttress public opinion in her own country. It's correct to say she doesn't control her government in the way she might have wanted to, but on that issue it will be difficult for Germany to stand aside if France, Britain and the US are pushing a strong agenda.
Besides, she could improve the quality of German foreign relations. It's easy to underestimate the degree to which Schröder himself was dictating his own positions for Germany that didn't necessarily reflect the wisest council from either the foreign ministry or his party. On German-Russian relations, there really were concerns at times that Schröder was running things out of his own back pocket.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Germany has a weak military that is overextended on peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan, the Balkans and the war on terror. What can Germany offer Washington at this point other than friendship?
SCHMITT: We're not looking for much more material support. We would like to see a German military that is proportionate with the country's state power. Germany is being helpful on all kinds of fronts -- the war on terror, Afghanistan, proliferation security initiatives and other areas. There's a lot on the agenda Germany and the US agree on and we would certainly like Germany to do more -- even in these tough budgetary times. But the key thing is the ability to talk to a major ally, have discussions take place in a cordial way. With Merkel in power, you're going to see much more willingness on the part of Rice and the administration to take into consideration German concerns. It's not true that America wants to go it alone. We want to have other democracies on our side and cooperation between Germany and the US gives legitimacy to American foreign policy that is extremely helpful at home and abroad.
SPIEGEL ONLINE: One reason many Americans were excited to see Merkel come into office is that she marks the return of the conservatives to German leadership after a long absence. Along with France's Nicolas Sarkozy, she is also part of a new generation of conservative leaders in Europe. But they come from an old European conservative tradition. How do they stack up to Washington neoconservatives?
SCHMITT: They have very little to do with each other. But what's striking about Merkel's leadership is that she doesn't seem to sit well with the party's traditional conservative leadership. She's something of an outsider. But she appears to be more open and flexible about the direction in which conservatives will head in Germany. That's healthy because I'm not sure Germany's conservatives, like the Tories in Britain, had the right formula for moving the country ahead. This is also an interesting time in France. Polls there show Sarkozy is more popular after the riots. He may well get elected and if he does, I think he will radically transform the French right. If elected, I believe Sarkozy will signal the end of the Gaullist period in France and that you will end up with a classic European liberal, laissez-faire approach in French politics.
Interview conducted by Daryl Lindsey