The unlovely new U.S. Embassy in Berlin fits the relationship

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

The new U.S. Embassy in Berlin on May 24.

BERLIN: When the new United States Embassy was ceremonially opened here on Friday, a few yards from the Brandenburg Gate, an architectural critique of the building said it bore "a trace of Alcatraz."

Rather than respecting the spirit of its location on Pariser Platz, the embassy has an "insultingly cheap and strengthless" effect. All in all, this multimillion-dollar statement of America in Germany, was described as a "klotz" - German for a huge lump.

The article appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a newspaper consistent in its fair reporting on the United States and Americans. And indeed, the embassy is heavy, built with maximum security in mind, and unlovely.

But a cause for insult?

The word illustrates the state of German attitudes toward the United States today, which mix great and often genuinely positive expectations, some of them unrealistic or impossible, and a reflex to find matter for grievance and complaint at any chink, factual or fantasized, in American behavior.

Here, on the up side, is Chancellor Angela Merkel, coming to the embassy's rainy inauguration at the site where it had been before World War II, and calling the return "an especially moving moment for the people of our country."

The trans-Atlantic relationship is part of the "basic essence of German policy," she went on, and said, "the United States stands like no other country in the world for freedom and independence."

But not necessarily for the things Germans want or don't want from America. For example, better climate control cooperation, or no more hectoring about why German troops won't join their NATO allies in Afghanistan's most murderous places.

"The truth is, in many areas, the German attitude towards the United States is not good at all," says Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a ranking Christian Democratic member of the Bundestag's foreign affairs commission.

This goes beyond punctual complaints about something like the possibility that American nuclear munitions in Germany are inadequately secured.

Rather, it's a markedly negative vision of America's place in the world. It's German public opinion's version of Vladimir Putin's accusation in 2007 that the United States was now a global problem.

In polling last month for the Pew Global Attitudes Project, 66 percent of the Germans canvassed said they viewed the United States unfavorably. They believe China and Russia have more interest in Germany's point of view than America does. And Vladimir Putin inspires more than double their confidence in George W. Bush.

Last year, in response to questions from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, 59 percent of the Germans called American leadership undesirable, while 86 percent spoke up for a greater role for the European Union. But when it came to committing troops for combat actions led by the EU, 83 percent of the Germans disagreed. More than any other European country, Germans didn't like the idea of using trade sanctions as a weapon either.

The simple idea for patching all this up - or at least moving in a more compatible German-American direction - seems in many German minds to be the departure of America's 43rd president. He is a point of fixation here, and Barack Obama, current polls show, the remedy.

But a look at Pew's chart of German attitudes reveals something interesting: The sharpest decline in favorable German attitudes toward the United States in the new century took place in the period 2000-02. It includes Bill Clinton's last year in office and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (when a pre-Gazprom Gerhard Schröder promised "unlimited solidarity") - but preceded Bush's March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Karsten Voigt, the Social Democrat who is coordinator for German-American cooperation in the German Foreign Ministry, said, "No doubt about it, the frustration started in the late Clinton years. The Americans were seen as being very pushy."

Pushy about decisively winning the war against Serbia in the Balkans. Back then, Clinton was said to have remarked "never again" after an experience choosing NATO bombing targets by committee, notably with the Germans.

And in truth, after 9/11, German public opinion did not like the idea at all of participating in an intervention in Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban and their base for Al Qaeda.

For zu Guttenberg, "the Germans powerfully resented the idea that the world had changed and wanted nothing to do with asymmetrical threats."

Of course, given a little time, Bush legitimized the Germans' reticence by failing to provide the manpower or wisdom to achieve victory in either Afghanistan or Iraq. In Germany, as in America, the best argument for pacifism is if you can't win wars.

Now Voigt says he worries about unrealistic German expectations from America's presidential election.

"The new American president won't be asking you what you think before he sends in troops some place," Voigt said. "He will have a different idea of what multilateralism means, and what, if anything, should be in a climate control treaty."

The German version of the moral high ground won't be vindicated or flattered by the new man. Both John McCain and Barack Obama have recently supported decisions that uphold both the use of the death sentence and individuals' rights to bear arms.

These days, while America really does want a strong EU (which many Germans refuse to believe), its desired Europe is one that invests much more heavily in defense capabilities, and escapes dependency on Russian energy supply.

That would mean new reliance on nuclear energy, and bigger defense budgets - possibly double anathema in Germany. All the more since 2009 promises an election-year confrontation between Merkel's CDU, the Social Democrats, and a strengthened far left that wants nothing to do with any America that isn't prostrate.

When the United States votes in November, Germany's national election will be less than a year off.

Beating on Europe is no path to victory in America. But by October 2009, even with George Bush gone, who knows what kind of vote-getting or vote-killing issue cooperation with Obama or McCain will be for the Germans?