Germany likely to pose challenge for McCain

Posted in Europe , United States | 11-Mar-08 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

Republican Presidential candidate senator John McCain

PARIS: Note for John McCain's staff:

Before the senator heads for Europe next week, get him a translation of a speech given last Tuesday by the German foreign minister that suggests Europe's future lies in finding itself a position mid-way between the United States and Russia, a sweetheart if only the West would respect its sensitivities.

Not exactly McCain's vision of the new trans-Atlantic century. He wants greater rather than fewer demands on Russia for cooperation, establishment of a League of Democracies able to make tough decisions the United Nations cannot (e.g., on Iran or Darfur), and a common marketplace linking the U.S. and European Union economies.

A good deed is requested here: Kindly pass along the speech on a new German-led European Ostpolitik to Senators Clinton and Obama. From remarks like Hillary's on this month's Russian presidential election being "a milestone in Russia's retreat from democracy," and Obama's concerning Europe's (read Germany's) faint response to putting troops on the line in Afghanistan, they won't be thrilled.

(All this, of course, in the spirit of commonweal and well-shared bipartisan concern about Russia's increasing hold on European decision-making.)

If his schedule remains intact, McCain will be in London and Paris - but not Berlin - to exude presidential competence and familiarity, and start reaping the marks of respect that Europe can offer potential American leaders.

The timing and imagery are politically perfect for McCain: standing in for America on the world stage while the Democrats chew over their argument about who is fittest to pick up the red crisis-phone when it rings at 3 a.m.

The Republican candidate on tour needn't do much other than say warm things about good old steadfast Britain, and love up France under Nicolas Sarkozy. If you don't scratch too deeply, Sarkozy really has moved his country away from its self-definition as counterweight to American policy.

That leaves Germany.

An American official told me last week that McCain wanted to see Angela Merkel in Berlin, but that scheduling problems got in the way. It's unfortunate, because Merkel, who talked to the Moscow hierarchy over the weekend, shares some of the U.S. candidates' high-priority concerns about a Putin/Medvedev Russia.

Yet Merkel, these days, is in no way able to control every turn in Germany.

A totally new kind of German political unpredictability ahead of general elections next year has been created by the emergence as a national force of the Left Party, a hard-nosed composite of old East German Stalinists and latter-day anti-capitalists and anti-Americans.

The former federal president, Roman Herzog, has warned how the party's presence could result in weak coalitions or even minority governments in 2009 that could shake the world's confidence in German stability. Endangering its reputation and undermining its role in the Merkel government, the Social Democratic Party has broken its word to steer clear of the Left Party and indicated it might consider it as a partner in a future coalition.

In these circumstances, Merkel's exceptional caution about taking tough lines on anything - not to mention McCain's call for a union of the West or more pressure on the Russians - can only deepen.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier enters here. He is the Social Democratic foreign minister who was chief of staff for Gerhard Schröder, before the former chancellor transmogrified into a Gazprom lobbyist and P.R. man.

In a speech in Berlin, Steinmeier sounded as if he was calling for the future of Europe's relationship with Russia to be placed on a similar level of weight and value as its involvement with the United States. In Germany, that has the ring of "equidistance" - one of the fantasies of the Schröder-era that Merkel promised to bury.

Talking of Europe, Steinmeier said, "Working on a 'peace order,' which includes our trans-Atlantic allies just as it does our eastern neighbors, is and remains today our essential mission and responsibility."

That was enough for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the conservative German newspaper that worries about Russia's growing reach, and has painted Steinmeier as crossing up Merkel in the past. It read the foreign minister's version of what Europe's position on Russia should be as placing "the EU in the role of mediator between America and Russia" - a place where no American candidate (or Merkel) wants it.

Nowhere in Steinmeier's speech was there any mention of Russia's threats to target warheads on NATO countries deploying the U.S. anti-missile shield, or Russia's control of Europe's energy sources.

In contrast, Jacek Saryuz-Wolski, chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs commission, described the EU's energy dependency now being at a point where "in relation to Russia, we're letting our sovereignty slip away along with the possibility to defend our interests and values."

This leaves Steinmeier, deep in the ancient dream of Russia as Germany's new frontier, arguing that the EU's so-called "strategic partnership" with Russia must be bolstered. Opponents insist that, apart from growing trade for Germany, the "partnership" with Russia brings the EU no assurance of security, and nothing to show that Moscow feels obliged to move toward democracy.

As for McCain, the membership list for the League of Democracies he promises to create in his first term doesn't include Russia. He also wants the G-8 group of industrial powers to exclude Russia from its summits.

That's a lot to digest for a nervous and hardly united EU where any American representing foreign policy firmness can be quickly caricatured as a Donald Rumsfeld - whose strategy McCain abhorred.

Even in France, where the Sarkozy line six months ago was all about Russia's "brutality," McCain may now hear concern for Russian "sensibilities," and that, in Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner's words, Moscow must now "have the place that belongs to it."

All of this comes down to more, much more, American-European divergence.

If Europeans want to label McCain as the next postulant for a trouble-making White House, they ought to hear Hillary Clinton on how George Bush gave Putin's confrontational policies "a free pass." Or Barack Obama's put-down of "anti-American posturing from European allies that enjoy the blanket of our protection."

Feel familiar? Whoever the new president, whatever the New Europe, the evidence says you've been here before.