With protesters in Berlin loudly voicing their opposition to U.S. President George W. Bush's policies, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is seeking to shine a positive light on what appears to be an increasingly strained relationship between Europe and the United States.
Berlin, 23 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As U.S. President George W. Bush continues his visit to Berlin, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is playing down Germany's differences with the White House, saying the two powers remain vital partners despite their disagreements and an emerging strategic relationship between Washington and Moscow.
In an interview with a small group of foreign reporters yesterday, conducted as thousands took to Berlin's streets to protest Bush's policies, Fischer tempered European criticism of U.S. "unilateralism" and defended Europe from U.S. complaints that it does not pull its weight militarily.
He also welcomed an arms deal to be signed tomorrow in Moscow by Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but said new relations between the West and Russia must not mute criticism of human-rights abuses in places like Chechnya and Central Asia.
Bush, on the second day of a weeklong tour of Europe and Russia, is set to argue for continuing unity in the U.S.-led war on terrorism today when he addresses the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. Bush said Europe also faces terrorism and would like its backing to widen the war possibly to include Iraq, which he said seeks weapons of mass destruction.
A former leftist radical and an environmentalist, Fischer said U.S.-European ties are far better than what the media are depicting, and he defended Europe's record on the war on terrorism, pointing to thousands of German peacekeepers deployed in Afghanistan.
"If you look to the facts, we are closer than ever. We are fighting together against international terrorism. We are together engaged in nation building in the Balkans and in Afghanistan. Europe and the United States never before were so close," Fischer said.
But if Fischer left it unclear to what extent Germany would support a broadening of the war on terrorism, he did not shy away from differences between European Union leaders and Bush on such issues as U.S. duties on steel imports and Bush's failure to support the Kyoto Protocol on global warming or an international war-crimes court.
Still, Fischer said the problem is not U.S. "unilateralism," or the notion that the U.S. is acting without regard to the concerns of others. He said a key problem is that Europe, despite its efforts to unite politically and economically, is still far too weak to "balance" America's presence on the world stage.
However, he rejected recent U.S. calls for increased European defense spending, saying that Europe has chosen instead to invest its limited resources in the "historic opportunity" of German unification and European Union expansion.
"It would be foolish to increase our military budgets and not to do the enlargement," Fischer said.
He said EU and NATO expansion will help to create peace and stability in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Shrugging off one reporter's suggestion that NATO has grown obsolete because its original mission -- Russian containment -- is no longer relevant, Fischer called NATO the "pillar" of trans-Atlantic relations.
"The presence of the United States for the balance, the inner balance of the European political system, is crucial. And it's in the interests of the United States to stay committed, and NATO is the most important instrument," Fischer said.
But NATO is changing. Next week in Rome, Bush and other NATO leaders will sign an agreement on a NATO-Russia Council to give former foe Moscow a voice in some of its decision making.
The German minister, however, said the new relationship between Moscow and Washington does not come at Europe's expense. He said the U.S. and Europe share key values -- democracy, love of freedom -- that will always unite them.
"We must constantly discuss with our Russian friends Chechnya, all the other issues, [for example] human rights. This is not a minor issue in the world of the 21st century. We have to discuss all these issues, not only with the Russians but also with some others, I mean in Central Asia or wherever," Fischer said.
Fischer added that Europe welcomes the new arms-control treaty due to be signed in Moscow. But he said the U.S. and Russia must take further steps, especially against the proliferation of nuclear and other dangerous materials from Russia and the former Soviet Union.