From This German, a Positive View of U.S.

Posted in Europe | 10-Jan-06 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: The New York Times

German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes a statement at the Chancellery in Berlin.

When Angela Merkel goes calling at the White House on Friday, the band could strike up nothing more finely tuned to the moment than "Amazing Grace."

After six weeks as German chancellor, she represents a kind of political bliss.

Hail to the instant! Because so far it's been all pink clouds:

An artfully professional mediation job at a European Union summit before Christmas that won her neighbors' real respect and recalled Germany's even-handed European leadership role of the Helmut Kohl years. Polls that put her over 60 percent in the country's mind as a good chancellor. Two sets of hostages freed. Even a series of encouraging economic statistics.

And now, from the point of view of the Bush administration, there's the arrival in Washington of a German leader with a positive view of the United States' capabilities in the world. An upbeat notion of America from abroad, looking beyond or around Iraq, from a chancellor who hasn't based her legitimacy at home on portraying President George W. Bush's grief in Baghdad as a kind of American original sin.

It's not that Merkel is in any way a Margaret Thatcher, who was ready to buck up Ronald Reagan to act on a shared global vision in which she sometimes supplied the urging and America the power.

But Merkel is a leader who focused her first major speech on talking about freedom to a Germany historically obsessed with stability as a greater virtue. Who believes Europe can never become strong and united in opposition to America.

And who wrote into the coalition agreement linking her Christian Democrats to the Social Democrats (in a government of not terribly like-minded parties) that Germans have to be educated again on the United States as creative force - when the polls show America has come to be regarded here with real mistrust.

Karsten Voigt, the Social Democrat who is a holdover as coordinator for German-American affairs in the Foreign Ministry, has caught the new line: "Her positive America vision will have a real effect on policy. Freedom - it's very important to her. She means it."

This does not include German troops in Iraq. It involves telling Bush, as Merkel indicated over the weekend, that the Guantánamo Bay prison camp mustn't exist "in the longer term."

But it does signify, in relation to the Middle East, what Voigt called an emphasis on establishing new values there - "more human rights, more accountability. It's a gradual process, not an absolute approach."

Voigt's boss, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, will be part of Merkel's delegation. Respectful of him, the Merkel chancellery nonetheless runs German policy toward Europe and the world. Here are a few examples, registered by visitors, of its anything-but-adversarial stance in relation to areas of American concern (no deep-reading or textual exegesis required):

A much more dubious attitude toward Vladimir Putin, whose Russia was shown in polls last year as more valued by Germans in terms of good relations than the United States. Russian threats to Ukraine are regarded here as a significant error, although one that will not undo the German firms' deal with Gazprom on a pipeline to supply Germany, bypassing Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic states.

A new readiness to speak out about concern for democracy's fate in Russia, or the need for democratic change in Belarus, the Russian ally that is Europe's last total dictatorship.

A clear refusal to go along with French efforts to lift the EU's embargo on arms sales to China, while maintaining cooperation with France as a vital element of German European policy.

An effort to shore up NATO's central place as the West's strategic forum, emphasized by Merkel's making it her first stop on her first official visit to Brussels. The EU, in the chancellor's formulation, is no longer portrayed as an eventual alternative or replacement for NATO.

All of this is really Merkel doing what she said she'd do before the election when she argued that Germany must again seek "to fulfill its double role." That is, a balanced foreign policy, based on the tandem of good trans-Atlantic and European relations.

Fundamentally, this means - my take here - that Germany drops playing tag-along to France's vision of a world divided into rival poles; stops demonizing the United States; and abandons as a serious mistake the France-Russia-Germany axis exemplified in Gerhard Schröder's seduction by Putin, the old KGB recruiter.

It's not overdone to believe these choices involve Merkel's deepest convictions. She is forever a child of the Soviet orbit and four decades of totalitarianism growing up in East Germany. In Merkel's mind, the Reagan years signaled the downfall of the old order and German unification, not marching in protest against America's missile and Star Wars programs.

Yet, in Washington, Merkel will try to economize her strength of the moment. There will be no joint, ridiculously hollow declarations like the bombastic German-American Alliance for the 21st century that Bush and Schröder signed at the White House in March 2004. This time, an expression of partnership can be subtler and more believable. German public opinion would gag otherwise.

Some cautions. Germany's economy has not reawakened from its years of structural slumber. The most optimistic estimates for 2006 run to a growth rate of roughly 1.8 percent, not enough to significantly dent unemployment of about 10 percent.

Less than two months into the Merkel era, there has been none of the necessary legislation involving new and painful economic reform. Confronted with the predestined impermanence of a coalition between rivals, her government's life depends on creating jobs and confidence.

For the moment, the partners have just begun to squabble about spending and investment programs that could crush a consumer revival as easily as propel it. Matthias Platzeck, the new Social Democratic chairman, unlike his predecessors, has never said never to the idea that his party might one day jump the Grand Coalition to ally itself with the Left Party and its nostalgia for Marxist economics.

The truth is that behind Merkel's individual popularity, the polls also show that more voters are already dissatisfied with the coalition than approve of it. Sometime in the next months, that disconnect could begin to weigh on this week's rapprochement in Washington.

George Bush in all of this? He has every reason to relish Merkel's moment of grace, trust in her good will, and to regard her Germany, once again, as a sophisticated, able partner helping where it can.

Stay a while, he might say to her. And fix the economy.