Wed, Nov 24, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Germany too passive to repair US rift

In contrast with France, Germany wants to build better relations with the US -- but it may not have enough clout to do so

By Jonathan Steele  /  THE GUARDIAN , Berlin

ILLUSTRATION MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

When US President George W. Bush makes his triumphant post-inauguration trip to Europe early next year, the German capital will not be on his itinerary. London will, of course. So too, almost certainly, will Brussels as the headquarters of NATO.

But the country that used to be the continental linchpin of the transatlantic alliance is off the agenda, according to German officials.

For a tour that Washington will bill as proof of the president's wish to re-engage with Europe in his second term, Germany's omission is eloquent testimony to the effort's fragility.

It is all the more surprising since German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder is studiously not behaving like the French president who enjoys defying Washington while breezily claiming he wants to be friends.

Although French President Jacques Chirac muted his line at last Thursday's press conference in London, his sneering at Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier in the week was pointed. Blair was naive to expect to be an honest broker, and the US president was not a man who systematically returned favors.

The German chancellor takes a softer line. He is eager to get back into Bush's good books. There is no talk from him of a multipolar world in which "democratization must not be confused with Westernization," as Chirac puts it. On the contrary, Schroder would love to kiss and make up.

"It's time to look forward. The relationship can be built successfully," he said after phoning to congratulate Bush.

Of course, the chancellor would have preferred a Senator John Kerry victory, and disappointment is palpable in every conversation with government loyalists here.

"Bush has won, and we'll have to make the best of it," as one senior official said through gritted teeth.

More diplomatically, Karsten Voigt, the chancellor's main adviser on relations with the US, describes Berlin's mood as one of "intentional optimism."

The foreign ministry where Voigt has his office was once the Central Bank under Hitler and, during the Cold War division, the headquarters of East Germany's ruling Communist party. In re-unified Berlin, the building's one symbol of continuity is the challenging "Paternoster," a constantly moving belt of open-fronted wooden lifts.

They pose a tough test of timing. Step in too early, and you bang your head. Leave it too late, and you drop into a void. It's an apt metaphor for Berlin's problem in judging how to restore friendship with Washington.

Some observers claim that a Kerry victory would have been more awkward since he would have asked Berlin to reconsider its refusal to send troops to Iraq. German officials reject this. Their line was well understood, and Kerry would not have wanted to spoil his overtures to Berlin with unrealistic demands, officials argue.

Besides declining to fight alongside the Americans and British, Germany refuses to join in training Iraqi forces inside Iraq. It even insists that German officers at NATO headquarters leave the room when Iraq operations are on the agenda.

In spite of these gestures of resistance, Voigt rattles off a list of areas where Germany is a reliable ally -- from being the second-largest troop provider in Afghanistan to its strong support for Washington's reform initiatives in the Middle East. He even claims a German affinity with the emergence of a strongly Christian majority in America.

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