Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany left on Thursday for her first official visit to the US determined to improve the German-American relationship. But she will have to thread her way carefully between that goal and the widely held view among Germans that the US is doing a lot of things wrong in the world.
Merkel, who was scheduled to meet with US President George W. Bush yesterday, is seen as friendlier to the US than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, whose vehement opposition to US policy in Iraq led to the worst crisis in relations for many decades.
The Bush administration sees her as a strong potential partner who can help to bridge differences between the US and Europe.
"There is no question that Washington is meeting Angela Merkel with a positive bias following the conflicts with former Chancellor Schroeder," Karsten Voigt, the Foreign Ministry's coordinator of relations with the US, said in an interview with a German radio station.
Merkel, the first German chancellor from the former communist-ruled eastern Germany, is known to have been critical of Schroeder's blunt public criticisms of US policy, believing that major differences should be expressed instead through quiet diplomacy.
But in an interview this week with the magazine Der Spiegel, she expressed her own disagreement with the Bush administration's effort to curb terrorism, in particular over the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which many Germans contend exists outside the framework of international law.
"An institution such as Guantanamo in its present form cannot and should not exist in the long term," she was quoted as saying.
"Ways and means must be found to handle prisoners differently," Merkel said.
In Washington on Thursday night, Merkel did not mention Guantanamo, but told nearly 200 guests at the German ambassador's residence that she looked forward to a "lively debate" on issues like the balance between freedom and security in both Germany and the US.
"There will be differing opinions in certain areas," Merkel said, but they can be addressed in a spirit of friendship and cooperation.
Her two-day visit is part of a series of trips since she took office late last year that have so far included visits to most major European capitals.
Clearly the relationship with the US is central to German foreign policy, and relations have been on a slow course of improvement even as German public opinion remains unfriendly and suspicious.
"This trip represents the next step in going back to functioning and reliable German-American relations," Eberhard Sandschneider, president of the German Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview on Wednesday. The trip, in this sense, is a continuation of improved relations noted when Bush came to Germany last year, meeting Schroeder in Mainz.
"Bilaterally we have few problems," said Voigt of the Foreign Ministry.
"It's mostly a matter of how Germany and the US can work together in order to solve problems on Europe's perimeters, such as in the Balkans, or how they think about Russia or Ukraine, how they view the Middle East, and how to address Iran's ambitions to possess nuclear weapons and the scandalous statements by the Iranian leadership in regard to Israel," he said.