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Frayed Ties: U.S.-Germany Relations

October 29, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SIMON MARKS: In the heart of Europe, the snows are falling early this winter.

Berlin is experiencing its coldest October on record at a time when the post-war relationship between this historic city and Washington, DC, has also hit chilly new lows.

The German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, sworn in for a second term in office earlier this month, hasn’t spoken to President Bush since June. The White House never even congratulated Chancellor Schroeder on his reelection in September because U.S. officials accused the Chancellor of winning a narrow election victory by turning on the Bush administration.

In a series of campaign appearances, the German leader said that even if the United Nations backs military action against Iraq, Germany will not.

CHANCELLOR GERHARD SCHROEDER (Translated): My arguments against military intervention remain, and it is clear that under my leadership, Germany will not participate in military action.

SIMON MARKS: He accused the U.S. of adventurism, promised voters he wouldn’t click his heels to a U.S. commander in chief, and saw his own justice minister accuse President Bush of deploying political tactics similar to those used by Adolf Hitler. She’s now been fired, but U.S. German relations have been brought to their lowest point since 1945, with senior members of President Bush’s administration describing them as “poisoned.”

U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY DONALD RUMSFELD: I have no comment on the German elections, but I would have to say that the… that the way it was conducted was notably unhelpful, and as the White House indicated, has had the effect of poisoning the relationship.

SIMON MARKS: So is there any regret here about the things that were said during the election campaign, or…

GERNOT ERLER, German Bundestag, Social Democrats: There is a regret…

SIMON MARKS: Gernot Erler is a member of the German parliament and the foreign affairs spokesman for the chancellor’s left-leaning political party, the Social Democrats, the S.P.D.

GERNOT ERLER, German Bundestag, Social Democrats: I think both sides should be interested in a normalization. I have in mind the utmost fear and the language and the rhetoric and so on.

We have conflict in the case of the Iraq military plans of the American administration, and I’m sure that we cannot resolve this problem in the next few weeks, but the atmospheric problem ought to be solved, in my view.

SIMON MARKS: That there is a problem in relations has shocked observers who have watched Germany become a pivotal U.S. ally over the past 50 years. The country is a pillar of NATO, three years ago contributing troops to the NATO mission to Kosovo; and last year sending 10,000 soldiers to Afghanistan, the first deployment of German troops outside Europe since 1945– moves that require judicial and parliamentary approval because of Germany’s pacifist postwar constitution.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I’ve had the pleasure of welcoming your chancellor to Washington three times, and we have established a strong relationship.

SIMON MARKS: Only this past May in a speech to the German parliament, the Bundestag, President Bush himself focused on the common interests that then seemed to bind the U.S. and Germany together.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Those who despise human freedom will attack it on every continent. Those who seek missiles and terrible weapons are also familiar with the map of Europe. Like the threats of another era, this threat cannot be appeased or cannot be ignored. By being patient, relentless, and resolute, we will defeat the enemies of freedom. (Applause)

SIMON MARKS: And yet just three months later, by criticizing U.S. policy toward Iraq, Chancellor Schroeder was able to win his narrow election victory.

SIMON MARKS: Volker Ruehe was Germany’s defense minister in chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government. He’s a leading member of the Christian Democrats, now the country’s opposition.

VOLKER RUEHE, Former German Defense Minister: With a question of war and peace, and you ask people, ‘you’re for peace or for war,’ and the way… he never talked about the dangers coming out of Iraq– no analysis. He had the knowledge, I mean, from the German secret service, but he didn’t talk about it. And unfortunately, the opposition – we — didn’t manage to force him to talk about the dangers coming out of Iraq which don’t just threaten the U.S.

SIMON MARKS: Political analysts here say the Chancellor’s strategy was designed largely to appeal to voters in eastern Germany.

Cities like Magdeburg still exhibit the bleak legacy of 40 years of Soviet domination, and the people here remain heavily influenced by that political heritage. They’re considered more likely to be hostile to American power than their counterparts in the west of the country. And in Berlin, where the physical east-west boundary has melted away, it isn’t difficult to find people who support Chancellor Schroeder and who don’t think much of President Bush.

MAN: I think he’s like a cowboy, actually. He’s kind of the picture of a cowboy in a western saloon. I think he’s too aggressive.

MAN: We need peace, not war. War cannot help us in the future. Only peace can help us.

SIMON MARKS: So is Germany in the grips of anti-Americanism?

Josef Joffe is the editor and publisher of the German weekly newspaper, Die Zeit.

JOSEF JOFFE, Editor/Publisher, Die Zeit: Whether Germans are anti- American, I don’t know.

All I can say is that for the sake of domestic electoral gain, this chancellor, the first time in post-World War II history, was willing to attack that bond which has… which had acquired over the last 50 years almost a kind of constitutional sacredness: ‘Never mess with the United States’; he did.

SIMON MARKS: While German government officials expressed the hopes that the personal rift between their leader and the U.S. president will soon be healed, there remains an enormous gulf between the two countries over policy.

Here again this week, a string of German officials have insisted that on the issue of Iraq, they have no intention of backing any plan that involves the use of force against Baghdad. Germany, they say, sees Iraq as a litmus test for the future of relations with a White House that they accuse of abandoning some of the central tenets of international diplomacy.

Karsten Voigt is a foreign ministry official in Berlin.

KARSTEN VOIGT, German Foreign Ministry Official: Nobody is against a regime change. We have… I’m now sitting here in the foreign office in the former

East Germany because we have had a regime change after long, but very successful period of containment. But we had in between very tough confrontations, a couple of hundred meters away at the Checkpoint Charlie. But we had the successful period of containment and then a regime change. So we are not against a regime change in Iraq. The point is whether it’s legitimate and in terms of international law, legal to use military force to enforce a regime change in Iraq.

SIMON MARKS: And even though symbols of the Cold War, like Checkpoint Charlie, that once separated the U.S. and Russian- controlled sectors in Berlin are now museum pieces, he argues that the sense of history is so great, that it means many Germans view the crisis over Iraq through a pacifist prism.

KARSTEN VOIGT: I am not sold that… I still remember sitting in a shelter. And I remember when allied fighters were shooting on me while I was playing in the street. So when you talk about collateral damage, meaning the damage against civilians, for me, it’s a personal experience. And this is a collective memory, which is still very important in the German political debate.

SIMON MARKS: It will fall to the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher and Secretary of State Colin Powell to try and resolve the current problems between the U.S. and Germany. They’re still speaking to one another and will meet in Washington later this week. The Bush administration is also speaking to Volker Ruehe of the opposition Christian Democrats. He’s just returned from talks with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

VOLKER RUEHE, Former German Defense Minister: We have to do repair work. We have to have real debates and not cliches, you know, about adventures and cowboys on the other side of the Atlantic and cowards and pacifists on this side of the Atlantic. We cannot refuse — I mean, to have a new debate — how to find security in the 21st century.

And so far I think the Americans are the only ones who have started it. That may not be the final answer, but there are no answers from Europe.

SIMON MARKS: There may, however, be more questions and challenges from Europe because some observers believe the end of the Cold War has ushered in an era in which European powers feel more secure and more willing to flex their muscles.

JOSEF JOFFE: It reflects something more profound than either Schroeder or “W.”

It reflects the disappearance of a vast strategic threat, namely the Soviet threat, which disappeared ten years ago and which gives a great deal more freedom to maneuver to those who depended on the United States for strategic protection. So, in a way, there is a certain kind of logic in this. Let me put it differently.

No German chancellor would have so blatantly played with the German-American relationship while Soviet tanks were ensconced 30 miles out of Hamburg. Now they’re 1,200 miles away.

SIMON MARKS: More than a dozen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Germans insist they’re not turning their backs on the United States, and everyone on all sides politically here speaks of the need to reestablish strong relations with Washington.

But as a unified Germany tries to establish its place on the world stage, it seems that the country’s historic ties to the United States will no longer be enough to assure the White House of support from the heart of Europe.