01/04/2006 04:05 PM

US-German Relations

Berlin's Concern about America's Image

By in Berlin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel can look forward to the red-carpet treatment in Washington next week as US President George Bush -- who never got on with her predecessor Gerhard Schröder -- hopes to signal a fresh start. But a top German official warns that despite improving trans-Atlantic ties, America's reputation among the European public is waning.

Karsten Voigt, the German Foreign Ministry's coordinator for German-US cooperation.

Karsten Voigt, the German Foreign Ministry's coordinator for German-US cooperation.

America's war on terror has dented its image in the world as a guardian of personal freedom, according to a German official speaking on Wednesday ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's inaugural visit to Washington next week.

"I'm concerned that the image of America as a haven of state legality where the state protects the personal freedom of individuals has suffered," said Karsten Voigt, the German Foreign Ministry's co-ordinator for German-American cooperation, who will be traveling in Merkel's delegation during her visit on Jan. 13. "I hope people in the US are aware of the problem."

Voigt said that while relations between Berlin and Washington had improved steadily since their bitter disagreement over the Iraq war in 2003, public opinion in Germany and other European countries remained highly critical of US government policy

Voigt told foreign journalists in Berlin that despite recent trans-Atlantic tensions over reports of secret CIA flights of terror suspects, Merkel can expect a genuinely warm welcome when she meets US President George Bush. He said she was being put up in Washington's historic Blair House, directly across from the White House – an honor bestowed on her predecessor Gerhard Schröder only once, on the last of his seven visits to Washington in June.

"It sends a signal that one has a positive, friendly attitude towards her," said Voigt. Merkel's support for the Iraq war when she was conservative opposition leader and the pro-American stance she gained growing up in communist eastern Germany meant Washington had high hopes about her after a difficult period in US-German relations, said Voigt.

In fact, expectations may be too high, he added. "If there's any prejudice regarding Frau Merkel in Washington it's positive prejudice," said Voigt. "Expectations are so high she may not be able to meet all of them."

Fundamental shift

Thousands of Germans protested Bush's visit to Mainz on Feb. 23, 2005.

Thousands of Germans protested Bush's visit to Mainz on Feb. 23, 2005.

Schröder's outright refusal to back Bush over Iraq, a policy that helped win the German leader re-election in 2002, plunged US-German ties into a crisis from which they have only recovered gradually. Voigt said the end of the Cold War had led to such a fundamental shift in relations between America and Germany that occasional disagreements were now inevitable. After being so close in the decades after World War Two, suddenly disagreeing had been particularly disappointing for both, said Voigt.

While the Iron Curtain divided Germany, the relationship was clear – the United States was West Germany's protector. The fall of communism had ended Germany's need for protection and thrust it into the new role of having to help solve crises elsewhere in the world, said Voigt. "In the last century we either caused the crisis or were at the center of it," said Voigt. "We were automatically involved. Now we have to decide whether we get involved, and because our resources are limited we can't always do so. Washington understands that we haven't turned from a 'Yes' country into a 'No' country."

Germany's military was stretched to the limit with its presence in the Balkans and Afghanistan, Voigt said. While Berlin may step up help in training Iraqi security forces outside Iraq and in building up Iraq's civil administration, stationing German troops there was out of the question, he added.  

But that doesn't mean Merkel won't be asked for an even bigger contribution next week. "The Americans have always wanted more and will continue to do so," said Voigt.


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