Auf Wiedersehen, Uncle Sam?

Washington and Berlin are going through a painful breakup -- and this time, it may be permanent.

Published May 5, 2005 3:49PM (EDT)

The day before flying to Europe to bridge the deep chasm dividing the Old and New Worlds, President George W. Bush was asked to size up German-American relations.

His answer: "Almost the same as with France."


Have we all really turned into Gaullists just three and a half years after becoming Americans on Sept. 11, 2001? Did German postwar foreign policy really take a decisive turn in the run-up to the war against Iraq? Why did the "Berlin Republic" decide to abandon the intermediary role Germany had traditionally played between its best friends, France and the United States, and side with Paris and against Washington? Does Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Germany really garner part of its legitimacy from its rejection of an American crusade to create a democratic world, albeit one skewered on the end of a bayonet? And, finally, are we seeing the emergence of a new Europe that would resemble the old one vilified by Donald Rumsfeld -- and in truth be much older still: the Carolingian Europe of the Middle Ages? A Europe that might consider itself a counterweight to American hegemony and, dare we say it, provoke, risk or even be yearning for the division of the West?

That's what it boils down to. And the stakes are high. So high, in fact, that the thought alone prompts a rush of reassurance: the culprit, say the appeasers on this side of the Atlantic, is the president sitting in the White House, the Texas cowboy who pervasively polluted the atmosphere with his my-way-or-the-highway demands. Once he and his neoconservative buddies ride out of Washington, the sun will once again rise in the West.

Similar rumblings can be heard from the other side of the Atlantic: Richard Perle, for instance, the notorious neocon "prince of darkness," recently called for "regime change" in Berlin. He expressed his confidence that "once Schroeder leaves the scene, Germany will revert to its accustomed friendliness." The appeasers find nothing unusual in this: Despite the close ties, this is scarcely the first time the atmosphere between the two countries has been poisoned.

Venom has often been exchanged in the relationship between these two best friends.

Former Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the architect of Germany's integration with the West, spelled out just what he thought of John F. Kennedy in his no-holds-barred, Rhinish manner: absolutely nothing. A gullible young fool who had evidently been hoodwinked by the Russians. Adenauer's successor, Ludwig Erhard, was mortified by a ranting Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office in 1965. The Texan lambasted the Germans as ingrates who had refused to support their friends in Vietnam. Captured by White House bugs, much of what was discussed between Henry Kissinger and his boss Richard Nixon on Willy Brandt's ostpolitik is not fit to be repeated. The most suitable statement for public consumption was Nixon's cutting appraisal of the German chancellor: "If this is Germany's hope, then Germany doesn't have much hope."

Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the global economist and statesman supreme, dished out criticism the same way his predecessor had taken it. In Schmidt's view, attempting to pin down his transatlantic partner Jimmy Carter, whom he considered -- at best -- a naive do-gooder, amounted to trying to "nail Jell-O to the wall." Helmut Kohl alone appears to have fared well with three U.S. presidents: In 1985 he dragged the first of them, Ronald Reagan, around a war cemetery in Bitburg, something that may have actually represented the start of the "new German normality." With George H.W. Bush, who later mused of making Germany "a partner in leadership," he put together a deal that cemented German reunification. And with the third, the bon vivant Bill Clinton, he ate his way through mountains of Filomena's fettuccine in Georgetown. Are the frictions between Berlin and Washington, which President George W. Bush's recent charm offensive in Mainz failed to smooth, really nothing more than a temporary cloud that will pass when the next leaders emerge on the horizon?

Probably not.

It's doubtful that things can ever be the way they were. A strange foreboding is creeping up on Germans as well as many Americans. A dawning that their nations' "steadfast friendship" rested primarily on identical strategic interests during the Cold War and that the enthusiasm for the United States exuded by much of postwar Germany was offset by misgivings about the alleged excesses of the American dream.

Very slowly, the liberators and liberated of Nazi Germany, those protecting and protected from the Soviet threat, are remembering the words of former British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, that nations don't have friends, just interests.

At the moment, one might say that the two countries' interests and their values are diverging. This is the only explanation for why hundreds of thousands of Germans cheered outside Berlin's Schoeneberg City Hall in 1963 when Kennedy linked the freedom of the whole world to the freedom of that divided city, and why German intellectuals shuddered 41 years later when Bush used the word "freedom" 30 times in his landmark address on transatlantic relations.

But in a speech to the Munich Conference on Security Policy, which German Defense Minister Peter Struck delivered on behalf of the flu-stricken Schroeder, the word wasn't offered once. Instead the speech referred to stability -- or a lack thereof -- no less than eight times. That alone was enough to convince American conservatives that the Germans have little interest in freedom and view continuity as the ultimate priority, even if it means cutting deals with ruthless tyrants. Americans believe that Ronald Reagan forced the Soviet Union to arm itself to death, thereby bringing it to its knees and bestowing freedom upon eastern Europe. Germans believe that Mikhail Gorbachev achieved this in a process they describe as "change through assimilation."

As a result, Germans regard U.S. attempts to enrapture the world with democracy as naive at best, while Americans take a cynical view of Germany's willingness to cooperate even with rivals. So there we are again: with that century-old clash between the American idealism of a president like Woodrow Wilson and a pragmatic European political rationale.

In truth, German perceptions of the United States have rarely been clear-cut. Usually they have fluctuated between the "extremes of admiration and contempt," as Hans Gatzke, a specialist on the U.S., once wrote. The members of the first German National Assembly in 1848 viewed the United States as the "most progressive of countries." The failure of this first German democratic movement unleashed an unprecedented wave of emigrants to American shores in the mid-19th century. Once they had landed, the immigrants developed divergent views. Some discovered the vaunted "land of unlimited opportunity." Others wrote home about a cold, cruel and uncultured country.

Later that century, Bismarck's Germany pursued social policies that were diametrically opposed to those of the robber-baron era in the U.S. This era -- with its Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and their vast fortunes -- etched the term "predatory capitalism" onto the German psyche. For Americans, even today, it was a "Golden Age."

German ambivalence toward America's growing industrial power took on a new significance at the end of World War I. President Wilson had promised "peace without victory," and the Germans asked him to mediate a cease-fire. With the postwar years shaped by the harsh dictates of the Treaty of Versailles rather than by the League of Nations, however, Germany felt "betrayed" by America. Yet at the outset, even the Nazis were prepared to take a favorable view of the Americans. The party newspaper Voelkischer Beobachter interpreted Franklin Delano Roosevelt's bold bid for power as an American version of the so-called Führer principle, expecting it to replace the ostensibly bankrupt democratic system in the U.S. as well. But as soon as these hopes evaporated, the Nazi propagandists began launching violent attacks on the "Jew-infested" and "uncultured" United States.

Any trace of anti-Americanism among Germany's middle class vanished immediately after World War II. Given the conflict with the Soviet Union, the countries shared common security interests. The integration of West Germany into NATO, a goal pursued by Adenauer and driven by Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, led to the unquestioning adoption of the American way of life in West Germany. The United States, the symbol of a progressive and democratic nation, became a surrogate fatherland.

But by the end of the 1960s, the honeymoon was basically over. So well had the West Germans learned their lessons about democracy and peace that they felt able and willing to tutor their own instructors. The intense criticism of the United States, above all at universities, zeroed in on the Vietnam War and the continued oppression of the African-American minority in many Southern states. The equally rumbustious debate on rearmament in the 1980s brought the image of a "dangerous America" into sharper focus within the West German left.

Many Germans viewed Ronald Reagan as an erratic politician who had nonchalantly branded the Soviet Union -- so crucial to West Germany's ostpolitik -- as the "Evil Empire" and supported the use of military power far too liberally and far too casually. Much like his ideological heir, George W. Bush.

Both of these presidents stoked the fires of nationalism while espousing the optimism born of victory in both world wars. Such rhetoric set alarm bells ringing among many Germans, whom the Americans had taught to be leery of any charismatic leader appealing to nationalist instincts.

The major difference between the two presidents: During Reagan's two terms, the Soviet Union -- the real enemy -- still existed. By the time the younger Bush entered the White House, Germany had already been reunited. The bulwark against the enemy in the east, in which West Germany had become America's staunchest supporter, had disintegrated.

At the same time a process of cultural estrangement set in, and no one knows where it will lead. In one manifestation, critics from all parties frequently describe globalization as the "Americanization" of Germany. Signs of change can also be found in domestic politics. Proposed reforms of the German labor market routinely meet with the same response: "We don't want the American system."

Religion represents the deepest divide between the two partners. Like its neighbor France, Germany is a steadfastly secular state, while the United States is growing increasingly devout. The born-again Christian has become a powerful force in large parts of the Republican Party. In the U.S., no presidential address ends without an appeal to God to bless the country and its citizens. In Germany, Schroeder has steered a different course, becoming the first chancellor to drop the phrase "So help me God" from his oath of office.

Javier Solana, the EU's foreign and security policy coordinator, has also noted the partners' creeping cultural alienation. "Theirs is a bipolar system -- all or nothing. We secular Europeans have a hard time dealing with that."

The Los Angeles Times complained that Europeans had been given the choice of being "poodles or enemies." In Bush's own, downright biblical, words: "You're either with us or against us."

Faced with the dilemma, the Berlin Republic seems to have chosen the "German path." When Schroeder was showing the American president around the chancellery in 2002, he spoke of "my White House." His jest had a hidden dimension: Despite the pomp and circumstance of U.S. politics, the president's seat of power is comparatively modest. In Berlin, the Germans have become a real force again.

It may have taken many Americans by surprise, but the new German assertiveness has deep roots. The recent debate on the thousands killed in Dresden and Hamburg during World War II has led many Germans -- who witnessed the bombing of Baghdad live on television -- to view themselves as particularly peaceful and the Americans as untowardly bellicose. Notwithstanding the fact that the two historical events scarcely bear comparison.

That the "normalization of Germany" is being pushed by a coalition of Social Democrats and Greens makes the country all the more suspect in Washington, even if this normality involves deploying German troops around the world. From Washington's perspective, this European style of politics with its growing self-assurance could evolve into a threat. Even the Germanophilic Henry Kissinger has noted a growing "German dominance in Europe."

For many Americans, including the pro-German political scientist Stephen Szabo and the far more reserved New York Times, an old issue is once again raising its hoary head: the "German question." Which coalition of countries is capable of stopping that monolith in the middle of Europe from dictating the continent's destiny? The current U.S. administration hardly shares such concerns. It haughtily points to its close ally's economic anemia and, conscious of its own supremacy, considers Germany to be largely irrelevant. Bush's comment in Mainz about the "great land in the heart of Europe" should not disguise this fact. There was no mention of the "partner in leadership" that his father invoked in 1989 during a visit to the same city.

Of course, countries can choose different paths without heading in opposite directions. The closely knit web of German-American business relations remained largely untouched by the crisis gripping the countries' political elites. Even cooperation between police and intelligence officials in the war against terrorism seems to be improving. Germany and the United States still have common strategic interests, even if a new consensus has yet to be found. Berlin, just like Washington, seeks to halt the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Germany will have to assess if and when it should intervene in the domestic affairs of other countries -- where, for example, the collapse of the rule of law has led to intolerable breaches of human rights. In Kosovo, Germany joined in the aerial warfare, despite the absence of a U.N. resolution.

Such a consensus can be found. The chaos in postwar Iraq has exacted a heavy toll on the U.S. hawks, deflating their much-publicized arrogance and breathing new life into the idea that even the United States needs allies.

In this context, one of Thomas Jefferson's guiding principles is acquiring renewed meaning. While writing the Declaration of Independence, the third president, who was determined to extricate the new nation from Old World intrigues, insisted that the United States demonstrate "a decent respect to the Opinions of Mankind."

This story has been reprinted from "The Germans," an English-language special edition published by Der Spiegel and available at newsstands around the world.

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By Hans Hoyng

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