TCS Daily

Berlin vs. Washington

By Joseph Tom Goeller - August 1, 2003 12:00 AM

The majority of Germans (55 percent) are convinced that relations between Berlin and Washington will soon be improved significantly.


According to a survey by the Emnid research institute, even the Greens are optimistic; 61 percent believe transatlantic tensions will be overcome "soon." Those numbers don't just reveal the naïveté of the Greens, they also show how successful the German government's propaganda has been. Almost every German politician who harshly criticizes the U.S. government starts with the introduction "our good friends, the Americans." The repeated and intensive use of this hypocritical phrase makes Germans feel comfortable with Berlin's contradictory political course.


And sometimes one gets the impression that the German government actually believes its own propaganda. The "end of the ice age" between Germany and the U.S. was announced in mid-July in Berlin. President Bush took a significant step toward repairing the relationship between the NATO allies. After a suicide bomb attack on German peacekeepers in Kabul that killed four German soldiers and wounded another 30, President Bush did more than just send the typical formal cable to express his sympathy. He picked up the phone himself and called Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. According to a stiff press release, the two leaders talked for 20 minutes. In addition, the Chancellery gave hints that Schröder might meet Bush "in the near future" in Washington.


In the American capital, however, no official of the administration wanted to comment on that leaked rumor. If the meeting between Schröder and Bush really comes true, the most important goal would be to try to reestablish some kind of personal level of communication. German diplomats, of course, avoid commenting on this "personal issue" and stress the subjects both should talk about.


German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who recently visited Washington for a series of talks, already did this. Interestingly enough, Fischer started to distance himself from Schröder a year ago when the latter first charted his anti-American course. Even though Fischer privately must be considered a hard-core anti-American, publicly he avoided accusing Bush or attacking the U.S. government for its war on Iraq. He left all the America-bashing to subordinate members of his party, the Greens, or to Schröder himself.


For a long time, Fischer has been angling for a bigger job. His ultimate goal is to become the first foreign minister of a newly structured and more integrated European Union in 2005. He knows that to do this he has to be more cautious and less aggressive than his boss, whose anti-U.S. rhetoric has not only angered Washington but also ultimately led to a split within the EU. Several member states, including the U.K., the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Spain oppose the foreign politics of Berlin and, by extension, Fischer's candidacy for the position of the EU foreign minister.


So the media-savvy Joschka knows he has to lobby not only in Europe but also in the "lion's den," in Washington.


While in Washington he met officially with Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and a bunch of senators about how to improve German-American relations, the real reason for his trip was to assure the American administration that he, as EU foreign minister, would represent a broader view than he does now as the top German diplomat. Fischer ultimately hopes that Washington will distinguish between him and his party.


At least in this respect Fischer seems to be as far from reality as his compatriots. What few in Germany mention is that Fischer occasionally is haunted by his radical past. Spain, for example, remembers very well that Fischer was involved with those so-delicately-termed "activists" who set fire to the Spanish Consulate in Frankfurt in 1975. Fischer even had the guts to confront Spain by appointing a buddy from his old terrorist days as German ambassador to Madrid. Of course, Spain did not accept this strange "diplomat." Even more remarkable is that a Swedish member of parliament recently called Fischer an "ex-terrorist." Even during World War II, no Swedish politician used such harsh words against a German politician.


These small incidents reveal the increasing inquietude of some European nations about Germany and its leadership. But they also reveal a lot about the lack of a sense of reality of leading German politicians. 


Fischer's visit to Washington illustrated this phenomenon. Even though he came empty-handed and could not or did not want to offer anything substantial for to improve German-American relations, he was able to convince the German press that he is the "maker," the one pulling the strings and preparing Schröder's visit to Washington. He stressed humanitarian and economic aid toward the rebuilding of Iraq, but repeated that no German soldiers will be sent there. That was his "significant" offer for which he got high marks at home.


Fischer is not the only one who seems to have lost his sense of reality in dealing with the U.S. administration. Peter Struck, the German defense minister, vacations in the U.S. He crosses the country on a Harley Davidson -- and some German officials leak this information to the press, hoping it will be seen as a good-will gesture, a signal that beyond all differences the German government considers the other side of the Atlantic as "our good friends, the Americans." How naive, but how typically German.

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