After the NSA affair led to a diplomatic chill, representatives of Germany and the US are now talking about their shared values at the Munich Security Conference. But the question is: How can these values prevail?
It has been 60 years, US Secretary of State John Kerry recalled, since he sat in the train to Berlin as a young boy in the early 1950s. He had to cross the inter-German border to arrive in the divided city. "I can remember guns rapping on the windows of my train when I dared to lift the blinds and try to look out and see what was on the other side."
In Berlin, where his father worked at the time, he rode his bike through the streets of the still-devastated city. Occasionally he encountered signs that proclaimed that a building had been rebuilt with funds from the Marshall Plan.
Referring to his colleague sitting next to him, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, he said, "Chuck and I feel this Atlantic relationship very much in our bones. Both of our families emigrated to the United States from Europe, and both of our fathers signed up to fight tyranny and totalitarianism in World War II. And we both watched the Berlin Wall go up as we grew up, and we grew up as Cold War kids."
Kerry's and Hagel's speeches at the beginning of the second day of the Munich Security Conference were a sort of counterpoint to the poisoned atmosphere in the wake of the NSA affair that had burdened EU-US relations in recent months. They emphasized how strong the underlying foundation of the relationship still is. The two politicians' sophistication was supposed to present an image of an America beyond the digital superpower that apparently didn't find anything wrong with spying on the heads of state of its closest allies.
"What we need in 2014 is a transatlantic renaissance," Kerry said. "It's very clear to President Obama that our future requires a renewed and enhanced era of partnership with our friends and allies, especially here in Europe."
Indeed, the foreign policy issues that he went on to talk about were much the same as the ones German President Joachim Gauck and Defense Minister Ursula van der Leyen had addressed the day before: the fight against poverty; the struggle to create a viable future in Africa, the Middle East and parts of eastern Europe; and integration as probably the most effective means to combat terrorism.
The overarching message was that despite all the current problems and the many differences, Germany, Europe and the US still formed a foreign policy community of values. In their cooperation, the United States and Europe continue to be leaders, Kerry said. However, he added, "Everything I see in the world today tells me that this is a moment where it's going to take more than words to fulfill this commitment."
Germany's new foreign policy
Whether this applies to the current German foreign policy is questionable. Shortly before Kerry spoke, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had outlined the main features of the future German foreign policy. Germany must be prepared to make more substantial, decisive and early contributions to foreign and security policy, Steinmeier said.
"Germany intends to and will provide a catalyst for a common European foreign, security and defense policy," he said, outlining the position of the German government. "Only if we put our weight together, to the south and the east, can Europe's foreign policy be more than the sum of many small parts." Steinmeier spoke of Germany's special role constrained by its past, but he also said the past could not always loom over its foreign policy: "A culture of restraint must not become a culture of fence-sitting." Germany was "too large to comment on world politics only from the sidelines."
Limits to influence
But the German-American or European-American policy will often run up against its limitations. This was the unmistakable message of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. He seemed relaxed when he arrived on Friday, dressed casually in jeans and a windbreaker, but now Lavrov sternly explained the Russian point of view. For example, on Syria. Russia is in almost daily contact with the government as well as the opposition, he said. "Russia can do nothing alone," he pleaded - without mentioning his country's role as one of the biggest arms suppliers to the Assad regime. "It is a very difficult situation and to try to convince the [Syrian] government, which is waging a war, to make some gestures - this is a very difficult task," Lavrov said. Conversely, he called on anyone with influence on the opposition to persuade them to return to the Syria peace conference.
The phrase "multipolar order" could be heard time and again at the Munich Security Conference. And the discussions about Syria, Ukraine and, under different circumstances, the relations of the West to Iran, showed how much this new order between transatlantic partners has its limits. There is less and less latitude to circumvent regional powers - especially in times in which the West is going through a deep financial crisis. The current economic situation loomed over almost all Munich discussions. And while participants agreed about the desirability of western values, how to implement them is likely to be a question that will occupy participants in many more conferences to come.