WASHINGTON – There are still disagreements over such issues as global warming, the death penalty and the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay, but it is still hard to remember a time when U.S.-German relations were on a sounder footing.
And the good feelings will be on display Thursday when, while en route to the G-8 summit in Russia, President Bush will be the guest of Chancellor Angela Merkel, head of Germany's Christian Democrats, on a visit to her home state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the former East Germany.
With Prime Minister Tony Blair reduced to lame duck status in Britain and Silvio Berlusconi knocked from power in Italy, Merkel increasingly has emerged as the leader on the continent that Washington most counts on.
"She has been the single most pleasant surprise on the European scene in a long time," says John Hulsman, European affairs expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
When it comes to pro-U.S. leaders in Europe, he said, "Angela Merkel finds herself the only game in town."
That may be something of an exaggeration, given the close ties Bush enjoys with some other European leaders, including cycling buddy Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the prime minister of Denmark, whom Bush hosted at Camp David a month ago.
But among leaders of the larger European countries, Merkel seems to have a clear edge. Brookings Institution associate Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a one-time aide to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, credits Merkel with defusing Iraq as a sore point in U.S.-German relations.
"She's not fanning those flames the way Gerhard Schroeder used to," says Sonnenfeldt, referring to the previous chancellor.
Merkel was born in Hamburg during the Cold War year of 1954 and later moved to East Germany with her family. As a teen, she showed her disenchantment with her country's communist system by hiding out in school lavatories to listen to radio broadcasts of West German political speeches.
Anti-war activists in Germany are gearing up to protest Bush's visit, much as they did during his two previous trips to the country. One of Bush's stops will be the northern coastal city of Stralsund, where the local chapter of Germany's Social Democratic party has proclaimed that the president is not welcome.
According to the White House, Bush's visit to Germany "will underscore our two nations' commitment to advancing freedom and prosperity and to strengthening the trans-Atlantic partnership."
Merkel attaches great importance to nurturing the NATO alliance, a position that the administration welcomes. It also appreciates the German commitment of 2,500 troops to Afghanistan and of security forces to other distant hotspots.
Still, the administration believes the number of troops that Germany can deploy at long distances for extended periods of time is woefully small, given the country's size, wealth and potential. But there is a recognition that Merkel is constrained by a political climate in Germany that rejects greater investments in defense if they mean cuts in cherished social programs.
On Iraq, Merkel has pleased the administration by stressing the need for stability without dwelling on the merits of Bush's decision — hugely unpopular in Germany — to go to war in the first place.
Germany has never sent troops to Iraq but has been training police and civilians at centers in the United Arab Emirates, programs initiated under Schroeder. Germany also is donating $10 million to an Iraq national reconstruction fund.
"A president who questions Israel's right to exist, a president who denies the Holocaust, cannot expect Germany to show any tolerance at all on this issue. We have learned the lessons of our past," Merkel said.
Bush appreciates the role Germany has played under Merkel as one of three European Union countries trying to persuade Iran to forgo nuclear weapons. "Chancellor Merkel has been strong," Bush has said.
Merkel inherited that role from Schroeder, but has been more assertive in underscoring the need to confront Iran on the nuclear issue.
"We want to prevent the production of Iranian nuclear weapons, and we must," she has said. How to achieve that goal will be a dominant topic of her discussions this week with Bush.