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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW

Gerhard Schroeder

German Chancellor Delicately Strives Not to Get in the Middle

April 01, 2001|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | Carol J. Williams is The Times Berlin bureau chief

BERLIN — As Germany's first chancellor with no memory of World War II, Gerhard Schroeder embodies a more self-assured nation of 82 million that is Europe's economic engine and driving force behind the inclusion of former communist eastern states in a new, unifying Europe.

But the end of ideological division has created an array of new challenges affecting Germany's relations with old friends and new, most notably with the United States, which was long revered as the moral force that lifted Germany from the ruins of the Third Reich.

Bush administration plans for a national missile defense has put Germany squarely in the middle of a tense standoff between vital trading partners in Moscow and security allies in Washington. Germany and the United States, both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, are also divided on their views of the role of a rapid-reaction force being formed by the European Union. From airplanes to T-bone steaks, trade spats are inflicting new irritations on what have long been close-as-family relations.

Schroeder, 56, faces reelection next year. He has weathered the strains of his country's first military action in more than 50 years--the Bundeswehr's participation in the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and continuing Balkan peacekeeping missions. He has managed to push through tax and pension reforms in little more than two years in office and has continued the determined campaign for European integration spearheaded by his powerful predecessor, Helmut Kohl. Barely a decade after reunification, the shabbiness of life in the eastern parts of the country has faded into memory.

Ahead of his first meeting last week with Bush and others in the new administration, Schroeder spoke with The Times in his office--a former East Berlin communist structure where the stained-glass windows still proclaim proletarian slogans--about his concerns, hopes and priorities in U.S.-German relations.

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Question: How do you assess the current state of the transatlantic alliance? Does the absence of a unifying threat from a communist, nuclear-armed superpower substantially change the relationship?

Answer: No. If the relationship between the U.S. and Germany, or between the U.S. and Europe, was only about resisting a common threat, that would be making too little of it. I have always seen . . . the basis of our relationship as common values, like the will to find peaceful solutions to conflicts and the absolute will to defend democracy as the most rational, actually the only possible form of government among civilized people. These values also have to do with a common interest in free world trade for the welfare of all people.

Q: Would German defense industries want to compete with U.S. companies for development contracts if the Bush administration moves ahead on the national missile defense project?

A: First of all, there has to be a decision on the project concept, and there isn't one yet, before we resolve the question of how Europe can participate or how to approach the technological issues. But if Europe does participate, it must be an extensive participation. It may be too early now to discuss details, because I have the impression that the U.S. administration is saying it wants to do this, but there are still so many question marks on what form [national missile defense] will take and who would participate.

Q: But, basically, you have nothing against it?

A: I don't want to see those of us in Europe having a closed discussion about this, one that would, right at the beginning, say, "No, never, under no circumstances." I believe the U.S. is entitled to fair consideration of its reaction to a changed security situation and should not be shut down right at the start. That would be wrong.

Q: On the European Security and Defense Identity, why do you think U.S. military and security officials have such strong reservations about a European military force? Will it divert resources from NATO?

A: I really don't understand these reservations, because it has been a long-standing U.S. demand that the Europeans be in the position to react to regional conflicts in Europe--of course, strictly within the framework of NATO and in no way against it . . . This is a policy that should strengthen NATO, not weaken it.

Q: Does Germany spend too little on defense?

A: Security should not be considered so narrowly. Security is more than military security or the security provided by defense forces and defense appropriations. If one looks fairly at the role Germany has played in the past 10 years, it must be said that we are the ones who carried the brunt of the weight in supporting the rebuilding of democratic structures in Russia. This is an enormous security boost. The dismantling of the friend-foe relationship in Europe between the West and Russia is a security improvement, and if you look at who is to be credited for this, you should find that it is Germany.

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