Bernd Mützelburg is a quiet, thoughtful man. During his many years as a diplomat, he served as the German ambassador to Kenya and Estonia. For the past year this top-level government official has been the Chancellor's foreign policy advisor - Gerhard Schröder's Condoleeza Rice.
Last Thursday, however, this 59-year-old consummate diplomat was virtually unrecognizable. A pale-faced Mützelburg, holding a stack of files under his arm, stormed out of the central, bug-proof conference room of the chancellery, trailing his Paris colleague Maurice Gourdault-Montagne and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin.
It was the day of the summit between the German and French governments in Berlin. Gerhard Schröder, surrounded by an army of aides and security officers, calmly chatted with Jacques Chirac. A few meters away, Mützelburg sighed and loudly proclaimed: "I scarcely know whether I'm coming or going."
The chancellery, traditionally a relatively hands-off apparatus for the purpose of monitoring the ministries, is increasingly becoming an independent operating unit. With a very small team of aides and advisors, Schröder is developing his own ideas and fine-tuning concepts designed to garner points in the global power game.
There is hardly a region that escapes his interest, particularly as German troops are currently serving in eight countries. With its staff of about twenty government bureaucrats, Mützelburg's foreign policy department is already operating at full capacity.
Schröder hopes that foreign policy will provide him with the glamour that domestic political struggles with associations and the opposition party cannot offer. This is particularly true as foreign policy offers something that is easily understood by television viewers in their own living rooms - small symbols and grand gestures.
Television screens show Schröder warmly embracing the French head of state, affably shaking hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin, or on location in Kabul. The bullet-proof vest he wears over his sweat-soaked shirt is intended to demonstrate that this is a man who doesn't shy away from getting involved. A speech given by the Chancellor to launch the conference of German mayors, for example, can hardly compete.
So far no consistent foreign policy discernible to the man on the street has emerged from the loose ends of Schröder's various activities. Unlike former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer with his connection to the West, Willy Brandt with his reconciliation with the East, or Helmut Kohl, who was a clear proponent of Germany unity, the current German head of state is still searching for solid ground.
In terms of his domestic policies, Social Democrat Schröder is a man of powerful words. But as far as foreign affairs are concerned, he tends to be cautious, a man trying to find his place in what former cultural attaché Michael Naumann calls Schröder's "new normalcy." Although Schröder wishes to embody a "self-confidence without arrogance" to serve the interests of an enlarged Germany, his approach so far has been characterized by questions:
Just how much of a friendship with France can the German-American relationship tolerate? Could the close ties within Europe that Schröder currently values so highly isolate him worldwide as well as on the continent?
What will become of German-British relations, as difficult as they are important? In light of growing British skepticism about the Euro and a pronounced anti-war mood in Germany, where does future common ground lie? Should the expansion of the European court system be advanced without London, given the fact that every EU convention only serves to widen the rift between the continent and the island kingdom?
Added to all of this is the complicated relationship with the United States, that stubborn and often self-loving world power, without which neither NATO nor the UN can survive.
Even Schröder knows that the cool relations of the recent past cannot be allowed to continue. However, a return to the old German-American friendship is also unlikely. So just how much distance can the relationship with the Americans tolerate? How much closeness is needed to maintain a foreign policy simultaneously oriented toward independent action?
It is precisely in his relationship with Washington that the Chancellor has not demonstrated the necessary consistency. What began as a solid friendship with America following the terrorist attacks of September 11th ("unrestricted solidarity") ended during the Bundestag elections in abrupt rejection. At the time, Schröder emphasized that German foreign policy "will be decided in Berlin."
Now he is looking for rapprochement, but while keeping his head held high. He intends to deal with US President George W. Bush as a self-confident partner, but without putting off another partner, his French friend Jacques Chirac.
This week only a few hours will separate Schröder's two most important meetings. On Wednesday at 8:55 a.m., New York time, he and the world's most powerful man will meet for 40 minutes at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. At 12:15 p.m., he will address the General Assembly of the United Nations at the UN building on First Avenue.
Schröder will have all of 15 minutes to address the assembled delegates of the 191 member states, a feat that will require intense preparation. Following extensive consultations, primarily with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, Schröder instructed his aides to incorporate three key messages into the text of his upcoming speech:
- A new self-confidence: 30 years after joining the United Nations, Germany intends to put all its energy behind promoting a stronger UN. According to the Chancellor, Germany, as an "equal member of the community of nations," will push to strengthen the Security Council by adding new members to what is currently an exclusive group of 15 states.
- An assertive foreign policy: In the interest of promoting an "expanded security concept," Berlin intends to assume "greater responsibility" for peace and development in poorer countries. This is especially applicable to the political and economic spheres, but also includes the use of "military force as a means of last resort for solving conflicts."
- International cooperation: In an admonishment of the US-British war coalition, Schröder has indicated that solutions to the new challenges the international community faces as a result of terrorism and the disintegration of states will be increasingly based "on international cooperation instead of unilateral action." Unlike the Americans, he intends to support a concept that links military policy, foreign policy and efforts to provide assistance to developing countries.
According to the confidential survey, Germans are essentially in favor of a course diverging from that taken by Washington. Three-quarters of those surveyed felt that Europe should take what it believes to be the most sensible course, while two-thirds were even in favor of Europe becoming a "counterweight" to America.
In this respect, however, the Chancellor's actions are unlikely to converge with popular opinion. Schröder wants reconciliation with the American president - and he expects the people to cooperate.
Foreign policy experts have anticipated this shift for some time. "Schröder is practically bursting with self-confidence, and not without justification," says Christoph Bertram, Director of the Science and Politics Foundation in Berlin. According to a high-ranking diplomat, the Americans "are currently even slightly more interested in good relations than we are." In this diplomat's view, Bush must make a serious effort to generate international support if he intends to gain domestic approval for his controversial foreign policy.
The relaxation of tensions signaled by Washington has been noted with interest and an audible sigh of relief in Berlin. At his ranch in Crawford, Texas in early August, Bush issued the surprising announcement that he was "looking forward" to thanking Schröder for Germany's "robust" assistance in Afghanistan. Shortly thereafter, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, in an interview with the German television network ARD, set the record straight by stating the US only expects limited German assistance in Iraq: "At least I don't expect any German troops."
However, the real nod of approval was delivered more discretely. A German delegation visiting the White House heard Condoleeza Rice, the President's powerful National Security Advisor, utter a sentence they had not expected to hear for some time: "Our relations with Germany are our central relations with Europe."
Of course, this statement does not apply to the pro-US Britons. Nonetheless, it was celebrated as a minor sensation within the ranks of the German government in Berlin. After all, it was the Italians, Poles and Spaniards, with their unconditional approval of the Iraq campaign, who had seemed to be developing into Americas' new European friends.
Schröder, until recently an unwelcome guest in Washington, seems to be making an effort to tone down his cockiness. He knows that his sudden popularity is not a result of his own performance, but rather of the poor fortunes of the Americans, who have managed to get themselves into an untenable situation in Iraq and are now desperately seeking partners.
The US' situation in the Gulf is so disastrous that Schröder, in an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, was practically able to portray himself as being magnanimous: "Satisfaction is not the issue here. Instead, we must solve the problem."
He is confident that the US president will not ask for German troops. According to circles surrounding the Chancellor, Schröder has made it abundantly clear that the German military has no place in Iraq. If Bush were to ask for German military assistance, his request would be perceived as an affront.
Instead, the guest from Berlin will offer assistance in other areas. Political insiders say that Germany is willing, "on a grand scale," to train Iraqi soldiers and police officers - not on-site, of course. A German delegation will also participate in the donor conference in Madrid in late October.
Schröder's aim in talking to Bush is not to focus on the crisis in the Gulf. He intends to offer Bush the assurance that Berlin will involve itself more heavily in stabilizing Afghanistan, both with the German military's mission in Kunduz and a diplomatic presence in Herat. For the Chancellor, Germany's role in Afghanistan remains its most important contribution in the fight against terrorism, and he believes that the war in Iraq has done nothing but divert attention away from that effort.
At its core, however, Schröder's rapprochement with Bush also signifies a weakening of his ties to Germany's French allies - a necessary casualty of his search for a new center and one he is willing to accept.
"Schröder has probably embarked on the most radical departure from German foreign policy."
This new direction is intended to carefully correct a course previously taken by the Chancellor, in which he reversed a basic principle of German foreign policy that has prevailed for the past five decades - to take the side of the great US protector whenever there is friction in the Bonn-Paris-Washington triangle - and allied himself with the French in a fundamental dispute.
Foreign policy experts are already praising Schröder as the protagonist in an entirely new concept in Germany's relations with the United States. Erlangen historian Gregor Schöllgen believes that the pragmatic Social Democrat has "embarked on the most radical departure from German foreign policy" and has "taken the Berlin republic in a German direction."
Egon Bahr, Brandt's mentor in matters of foreign policy and a forerunner of the policy of détente, would like to see this term - "German direction" - be applied less self-consciously. In the past, it was considered a "special direction" and therefore taboo. In Bahr's opinion, Berlin should resist any efforts on the part of the hegemonic Americans to demand subordination.
However, change seems to be occurring at breakneck speed, and French President Chirac, who was joined by Schröder in defying Bush, already seems to be reacting. A future in which the Germans can easily swing back and forth between Paris and Washington is unlikely to be in his best interest.
It was in this spirit that the tall Frenchman embraced - and in more than just the physical sense - the noticeably shorter Chancellor in Berlin last Thursday. Chirac loudly and enthusiastically proclaimed that the German-French partnership represents "the future of our people and of Europe," then promptly moved closer to his German partner.
Now Paris is also willing to train Iraqi police officers and soldiers in France, and its willingness is not contingent upon the UN Security Council's ratification of a new Iraq resolution. "If the Chancellor supports this approach, France will take the same position, and will do so for the same reasons," gushed Schröder's flexible guest.
Not too long ago, the French president was against any participation in the pacification of Iraq - at least as long as the Americans are in charge in there. But following his conversation with Schröder and prior to the meeting with Tony Blair on Saturday, Chirac made a visible effort to demonstrate flexibility. After all, he too is scheduled to meet with Bush in New York on Tuesday.
Although French ideas are barely compatible with those of the Americans, he has no intention of allowing another total confrontation with the Americans to develop in the Security Council. In its realistic assessment of the situation, Paris has concluded that Schröder would not support Chirac a second time around.
This is certainly a justifiable conclusion, since the Chancellor has already distanced himself from Paris' rigid ideas. Foreign Minister de Villepin boldly demanded a rapid transfer of power to the Iraqi "transitional administration within one month," as well as elections in the spring of 2004. His US colleague, Colin Powell, was not the only one to reject de Villepin's proposal as "total unrealistic."
Schröder took advantage of the controversy to quickly position himself where he seems to want to stand of late: halfway between Paris and Washington - and he demanded a "schedule that is realistic and doesn't place excessive demands on anyone."
RALF BESTE, KONSTANTIN VON HAMMERSTEIN, ROMAIN LEICK
Translated by Christopher Sultan