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Nice, ja, but no schmooze-fest

October 16, 2005|Helen Fessenden | Helen Fessenden, Washington editor at Eurasia Group, has just returned from Berlin as an Arthur F. Burns fellow. The views expressed above are her own.

NOW THAT Angela Merkel has won the "chancellor war" in Germany, Berlin and Washington will strive to make nice. The Bush administration would have been much happier if Merkel's party had won enough parliamentary seats to pull off a center-right takeover of the government. It didn't, and she had to settle for a grand coalition with Gerhard Schroeder's party. Nevertheless, Germany will stay for the most part on the foreign-policy course set by outgoing Chancellor Schroeder. That means some of Berlin's interests will match up with Washington's, while others will not.

There is still no chance that Germany will send troops to Iraq or support any U.S.-led military action against Iran. But Germany is no longer the ironclad pacifist of the Cold War era. German peacekeepers will stay in Afghanistan and the Balkans, and Berlin, along with London and Paris, will stick to its recently hardened line against Iran's nuclear ambitions. And even if Merkel is not as chummy with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin as was Schroeder, Germany, to the dismay of its East European neighbors, will remain friendly with Moscow because it needs Russia's oil and gas.

A big reason that relations with the U.S. and the world will remain steady under Merkel is that Germany's foreign policy has already absorbed the seismic shifts caused by the end of the Cold War. The security rationale that held the transatlantic alliance together no longer applies. In turn, Germany has come into its own as an independent broker capable of exerting influence with more than a checkbook.

In the 1980s and most of the 1990s, Germany, under Chancellor Helmut Kohl, used cash to define its relationships with the U.S. and the world. Berlin played the good European neighbor when it effectively subsidized, via Brussels, French farmers and poor European countries. Germany gave up its independent monetary policy, which meant emasculating its powerful Bundesbank, when it agreed with its European partners to create a currency union as a quid pro quo for German unification. Then came the Persian Gulf War, and Kohl dug into his deep pockets to help the U.S.-led coalition. When the Balkans exploded, Germany took over the cost of housing most of Bosnia's refugees.

Kosovo, Sept. 11 and Afghanistan changed all that. German peacekeeping soldiers are spread far and wide, and most of the electorate, after fierce debate, accepts that. Berlin and its European Union partners have taken the lead in talks with Iran at a time when the U.S. is preoccupied with the Mideast. Germany's refusal to embrace the U.S. case for war in Iraq irritated Washington, but no German government would have defied a majority of its citizens, who opposed the invasion. If U.S. and German interests similarly clash in the future, don't expect Berlin to paper over differences by paying for them.

As the grand coalition settles into Berlin, Washington should expect a friendlier tone. But on matters of substance, the German daily Der Tagesspiegel got it right in noting: "A return to the beautiful, old transatlantic schmooze-fest is not going to happen."

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