When German Chancellor Angela Merkel was sworn in 14 months ago, the first woman in the post, she seemed less a phenomenon than a fluke -- squeaking into office amid predictions that her government would be hobbled by internal problems and might soon collapse.
Now, with Britain and France both in political flux and with Merkel having forged a surprisingly warm relationship with US President George W. Bush, the 52-year-old Merkel has emerged as the leading political actor in Europe -- not to mention the go-to person in Europe for Washington.
It is no accident that when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wraps up a tour of the Middle East next week, her first stop will be Berlin, where she will brief Merkel on efforts to revive the peace efforts in that region.
On a visit to Washington last week, Merkel won a pledge from Bush to focus more on the so-called quartet -- the US, the EU, Russia and the UN -- to promote peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
"This enables the European Union, as a whole, to take on responsibility, and we want to take on responsibility for the Middle East process," Merkel said in Berlin on Thursday.
Merkel's foray into the Middle East is one of several high-visibility initiatives by the chancellor as she assumes the rotating presidencies of the EU and the Group of 8 (G8) industrial nations.
At the top of Merkel's agenda, analysts say, is reinvigorating the Atlantic alliance. Her first foreign trip after assuming the dual presidencies was to the White House, where she proposed creating a trans-Atlantic economic zone and pressed Bush on climate change policies.
"I consider it my job to express to America what's in the interest of Europe," Merkel said. "And for me, the trans-Atlantic partnership, in general, is in the European interest. Europeans know that we cannot accomplish things without America," Merkel said, "and on the other side, America must also know that Europe is needed in many areas."
`The big player'
Merkel is receiving a respectful hearing in Washington in part because she is the only leader of a big-three European nation likely to be around at the end of this year. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac are in the waning months of their lengthy tenures.
"She's the big player in Europe right now," said Kurt Volker, the Bush administration's principal deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
The Bush administration, Volker said, viewed Merkel as the "anchor point" for its dealings with the EU on a host of issues, from constraining Iran's nuclear ambitions to responding to Russia's recent showdown with Belarus over natural gas and oil shipments.
After the rupture between the US and much of Europe over the Iraq War, the Bush administration is also clearly relieved to find a German leader with whom it can have a civil relationship. Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, a strong opponent of the war, and Bush had little to say to each other after it began.
Bush, who has met Merkel six times, regularly refers to her upbringing in the former East Germany, which they both affirm has given her a particular appreciation of freedom.
To some extent, analysts say, Merkel's strength is a corollary of Bush's weakness. There is historical precedent for a German leader to act boldly during a time of trouble in the US.
"Thirty-five years ago, Willy Brandt reacted to Watergate and Vietnam by taking the initiative with his Ostpolitik," said John Kornblum, a former US ambassador to Germany. "Thirty-five years later, Merkel is doing the same thing with her own form of Westpolitik."
Volker, however, cautioned against concluding that Merkel's rising influence would iron out all the differences between the US and Europe.
"We have to be careful not to think this is a magic bullet," he said. "There are limits to what anybody can do."
Indeed, Merkel's boldest trans-Atlantic initiative -- for an economic zone between Europe and the US -- has aroused little excitement in Washington, where the Bush administration is focused on salvaging the current Doha Round of global trade negotiations.
Merkel is also unlikely to change the stance of Germany or France on the Iraq War. She declined to comment on Bush's plan to commit more than 20,000 additional US troops to Iraq.
"Next time," she said with a smile, switching momentarily from German to English.
In general, Merkel deflected questions about her enhanced status. Even the site of the meeting with a small group of correspondents -- a cramped conference room down the hall from her cavernous office facing the Reichstag building -- seemed calculated to avoid pretense.
But she left no doubt she would push her ideas aggressively. Her trans-Atlantic economic proposal, which aims to harmonize US and European business regulations, is a case in point.
"In a world with rising economies like China, like India, like Latin America, we face completely different competition," she said. "That suggests bundling our power, not falling back on protectionism, but bundling our power."
Merkel expressed confidence that the US had become more open-minded about policies to confront climate change, an issue she has put high on the G8 agenda. Bush, in remarks after meeting Merkel, said it was time to move beyond "old, stale debates of the past."
Merkel said: "I see a greater readiness than in previous years to confront climate and climate change. And I see good possibilities for cooperation in the area of energy efficiency," as well as in bio-fuels.
US officials said they admired Merkel's stern warning to Russia concerning its recent standoff with Belarus over natural gas shipments. Merkel has taken a more neutral line toward Russia than did Schroeder, who took pride in his friendship with President Vladimir Putin.
Asked if she seconded Schroeder's assessment of Putin as a flawless democrat, she said: "I have not yet said that, and would also not say it now. I use the phrase strategic partnership with Russia."
With Germany growing at its fastest clip in six years, Merkel's government looks secure. The question, analysts here say, is whether she will achieve endurance on the global stage. Merkel professes not to be worried.
"Fear," she said, "is not a good political adviser."
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