Accessibility links

U.S./Germany: Are Berlin and Washington Mending Fences?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The Iraq war caused an unprecedented split between once-firm allies Germany and the United States. Now there are indications that Germany is taking preliminary steps to improve relations. But how far can Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder go in this direction? Could Germany contribute to the peacekeeping force in Iraq?

Prague, 6 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- There are indications that Germany is trying to mend its relations with the United States, which were severely strained by Berlin's opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The breach over Iraq ended a half-century of exceptionally close ties between the two countries, born out of the wreckage of World War II. But the will to mend the broken fences still appears slight and precarious, like an early blossom emerging into a freezing wind.

For instance, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has expressed regret at what he now describes as the "exaggerated remarks" made during last autumn's German election campaign. Those remarks were harsh. Schroeder dismissed the war as an "adventure" that would set the Mideast region "ablaze," and he said his country will not "click its heels" for Washington.

In another sign of atonement, Schroeder said last week that creating a power pole in Europe to counterbalance the United States is "not our understanding of Europe."

From the United States comes also an echo of rapprochement. U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick said in Berlin last week that he believes mutual interests, especially in trade, will bring the two major economic powers together again. Zoellick is the first U.S. cabinet member to visit Berlin since the rift.

But analysts don't see any easy way back. As Heather Grabbe of the Center for European Reform in London told RFE/RL: "Relations have been pretty severely damaged. It's difficult to see how the Bush administration has much incentive to make up with Schroeder. Schroeder has an incentive to make up with the Americans, but on the American side there is still a lot of resentment and anger and they do not have a big incentive to improve relations."

Into this void has stepped Poland, a candidate member of the European Union and a close European ally of the United States. Washington has offered Warsaw the stewardship of one of at least three security zones which the United States plans to set up in Iraq. That's largely seen as a reward for Poland's staunch support for the U.S. in the Iraq issue.

Polish Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski told U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld this week that he wants German and Danish troops to join Polish forces in a multinational security force that will patrol the Polish-controlled zone. Szmajdzinski noted in an interview in "The Washington Times" that a Polish-German-Danish force already exists under NATO, so the proposed combination makes sense.

Poland is thus trying to act as an intermediary between the estranged allies Germany and the United States, to bring them closer again. But analyst Edmund Wnuk-Lipinski, of the Institute of Political Studies in Warsaw, is pessimistic on whether Berlin will accept the offer, for reasons of prestige. He notes Germany has long been a patron of Polish efforts to join the EU, and for Poland to suddenly play the lead role is unthinkable. "For Germany to be invited by Poland to join efforts in stabilizing Iraq is something that is hardly acceptable," Wnuk-Lipinski said.

German analyst Wichard Woyke of Muenster University gave an even more cogent explanation of why it will not happen: "I do not believe that Germany would go [to Iraq] without the consent of the Security Council of the United Nations. This is an absolute necessity which must be received, and I don't see a mandate from the UN Security Council in the next half-year because the Americans have not asked for such a mandate."

Woyke said he does not believe government-to-government relations between the U.S. and Germany will improve anytime soon despite the minor overtures of friendship on both sides. He notes that the personal chemistry between Schroeder and U.S. President George W. Bush remains bad.

And that's bad for both sides. "The Bush administration now needs European allies, frankly," analyst Grabbe said. "The Americans do not have a good record on peacekeeping and reconstruction. They need the help of the whole of Europe -- and that means also France and Germany -- in now getting out of Iraq. Their exit clause depends on an entry clause, really, for those countries."

But Grabbe said that won't be easy to achieve particularly because of continuing resentment on the part of the hawks in the U.S. administration who are not yet ready to forgive countries like Germany for their staunch opposition to the U.S.-led war.