Next week, Angela Merkel arrives in Washington to meet with President Bush for the first time in her new role as chancellor of Germany.
As the Atlantic Times put it, she is "the most powerful woman in the German-speaking region since Maria Theresa (1717-1780)." The visit is long overdue.
Her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, was famous for railing against the United States and the Bush administration, much to the detriment of transatlantic relations. During the German elections of 2002, Schroeder quite publicly opposed invading Iraq, saying he wouldn't "click my heels" and follow the American way into war. He insisted his country would instead follow a "German way." It was the sort of rhetoric that raised eyebrows even in Europe--and particularly in Eastern Europe.
Amid statewide elections in September, his Social Democratic party ran posters showing coffins draped in American flags and the line, "She would have sent soldiers"--she referring to Merkel.
In late October, with only a few weeks left in power, the chancellor couldn't resist mentioning Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath at a gathering in Hannover.
"I do not want to name any catastrophes where you can see what happens if organized state action is absent," he said. "I could name countries, but the position I still hold forbids it. But everyone knows I mean America."
Thankfully he no longer holds that position. In fact, he's since taken a lucrative job with Russian oil giant Gazprom, lobbying the same pipeline he pushed for while in office.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, there have been repeated attempts to mend the transatlantic rift--with middling success at the state level. (On the other hand, says one German counterterrorism expert, "we have always been close on the working level" in the war on terror.) But it wasn't until Nov. 22, when the chancellery switched hands, that analysts saw a serious opportunity for diplomatic change.
But what sort of change can we realistically expect?
"The issue will be substance versus style," said Karen Donfried last October at a German Marshall Fund symposium. Donfried, the senior director at GMF, pointed out that "Schroeder did one thing and said another. Sure they were helping us out--a lot, even--but by 'merely' what he said, he was delegitimizing Operation Iraqi Freedom."
She continued, "If Merkel simply continues doing what is being done but says positive things and explains honestly [to the German people] why they are helping, that would be hugely significant."
German forces are currently deployed in the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, and Afghanistan, the latter of which represents the largest contingent--comprising some 2,000 soldiers--within the International Security Assistance Force. Several German soldiers have also been killed by suicide bombers.
"Concerning Afghanistan and the Balkans," says Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, "there is enough to allow Merkel to say that they are already doing a lot. In terms of doing more, she might first ask the Pentagon to back off and allow foreign companies to be granted licenses for contracts such as those dealing with electricity."
Like Donfried, Janes senses the new chancellor will maintain Germany's current foreign policy but change the style with which certain disagreements are handled. "The Germans will want to weigh in on transatlantic relations but not act as a counterweight."
On a visit to Washington early last year, Wolfgang Schauble, the former head of the CDU and current minister of the interior, echoed these remarks.
"Although we too would have disagreed with the United States over the war, we would not have done it the way Schroeder did." (Schauble also called for "regime change--in Berlin.")
Last summer, he spoke with National Security adviser Stephen Hadley at the White House and rather unexpectedly saw Bush himself. In the end, the president spent close to an hour with Schauble in the Oval Office, discussing the future of transatlantic relations and, according to diplomatic sources, came away deeply impressed by the minister.
Just before Christmas, Franz Josef Jung, Germany's new defense minister, came to Washington to meet with Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld. Jung described his talks as "very positive" and taking place "in a very good atmosphere . . . . We spoke about our partnership and transatlantic relations and NATO serving as a strong anchor . . . ."
Jung added that they discussed peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan and the Balkans. "I am thankful that the U.S. government has accepted our position on the subject of Iraq," he told me. "Secretary Rumsfeld himself has quite clearly accepted this--that we won't be sending any troops in, but that we will provide other support such as training measures outside of Iraq. It is in our mutual interest to see that country able to contribute to its own stability."
Not that this surprises anyone.
"There's no way in hell Merkel will send troops to Iraq," says Jackson Janes. "But what her visit will definitely do is set a tone--not necessarily set a policy. I wouldn't count on there being an announcement that Bush has just signed on to Kyoto."
"In diplomacy, tone is always substance," says Hubert Wetzel, the diplomatic correspondent for Financial Times Deutschland. "There will very likely be a positive change in tone. But Merkel knows very well that the Bush administration is not popular in Germany."
Still, says Wetzel, "there are at least two topics where her line will be much more along U.S. interests: (a) She did let Washington know that, unlike Schroeder, she will not push for an end to the E.U. arms embargo against China until Washington's worries have been fully addressed, and (b) her government does not actively oppose--unlike many in her party--the E.U.'s accession talks with Turkey."
"We need to develop better relations with the United States," stressed the new defense minister. "As I said in the Bundestag, we are enormously indebted to the Americans who helped in the building of the federal republic, securing freedom for West Berlin, and preserving Germany's identity. The future demands a positive and friendly relationship. It is important in the interest of not only a secure Germany, but a secure Europe and the world."
From Washington, Jung departed for the Middle East where he spent time with German forces stationed in Djibouti, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. "For many soldiers so far away from home," wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "it was a genuine surprise to see the new defense minister visiting them so soon." Although his stay was brief, "the gesture was important nevertheless" in reminding the troops they are not forgotten.
Jung clearly sees the value in setting the right tone. When I asked him what he thought of Schroeder taking a job at Gazprom, he managed only the slightest grin and said simply, "Let's just say I wouldn't have done that."
Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.