Frank-Walter Steinmeier meets with White House officials including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Tuesday. While the new foreign minister hopes for better ties with the US, it could still be a baptism of fire.
Steinmeier will face few tasks tougher than negotiating with the US
It is one of the hottest "hot potatoes" that Frank-Walter Steinmeier is ever likely to juggle in his new role as Germany's foreign minister. While European squabbles may prove to be the cause for many a future headache, Germany's new man abroad will find few tasks as complex and potentially combustible as dealing with the United States.
Steinmeier debuted in Washington on Monday with a meeting with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan but the main event will be on Tuesday when Germany’s chief diplomat will hold talks with his counterpart, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
While Steinmeier's predecessor may privately lament his tenure as foreign minister being cut short by Germany's September general election and the subsequent formation of a Christian Union-Social Democrat coalition, Joschka Fischer is unlikely to miss sparring with the likes of Messrs. Cheney, Powell and Rumsfeld.
During Fischer's seven years in the foreign office, German-US relations hit an all-time low as a direct result of Gerhard Schröder's militant stand against the invasion of Iraq. While Schröder took regular and uncompromising flak for his stance from across the Atlantic, the former chancellor very rarely had to deal with the abuse face to face. Fischer was the man who was charged with butting heads with the State Department and the White House.
Iraq remains the main contentious issue
Germany's staunch opposition to the Iraq war still sticks in the craw
Despite the icy chill somewhat thawing between the two nations of late, Frank-Walter Steinmeier will now be that point man. While some of the personnel may have changed -- Rice having taken over from Colin Powell -- the main topic remains the same: Iraq.
Before even being sworn in, Steinmeier had set out his stall on the subject that had come so very close to irrevocably damaging transatlantic relations during the summer of 2002. Earlier this month, Steinmeier responded to reports that the US had requested that Germany expands its activities in Iraq by ruling out any major foreign policy changes in transatlantic ties, particularly in the war-ravaged nation.
However, Steinmeier announced that he would undertake efforts to further improve relations with the US. "To do nothing would surely not be good advice," said Steinmeier, pointing out the Social Democrats and conservatives had made it clear in their coalition deal that the transatlantic relationship would one of the two main pillars of German foreign policy along with European integration.
Loyalty to Schröder may rankle in Washington
Steinmeier's loyalty to his former boss could alienate some in the US
While this could mean that there will be no new spats over German involvement in Iraq, Steinmeier will be charged with keeping a lid on old problems which could be just as challenging as avoiding new ones.
A staunch supporter of the ex-chancellor and formerly Schröder's chief of staff, Steinmeier is a Social Democrat foreign minister who strongly supported his former boss' stand against the US. This may rub some old foes in Washington the wrong way despite his arrival with olive branch in hand.
If Steinmeier can steer a smooth course on Iraq during his meeting with Rice, there are other potential storms which could blow their embryonic working relationship off course.
Carrying on Fischer's project of diplomacy with Iran
The topic of Iran's nuclear ambitions may provoke a difference of opinion as Steinmeier takes over the diplomatic torch from Fischer as part of the EU-3 negotiating team.
Condoleezza Rice has often made her suspicions of the EU-3 public
Rice has been suspicious of the Europeans' efforts to resolve the crisis diplomatically and recently reiterated US willingness to bring Tehran before the UN Security Council. While Germany has led with, albeit thinning, patience, the United States has, on the whole, been more in favor of sanctions sooner rather than later.
Environment issues and CIA bases lie in wait
The new foreign minister, who revealed before his visit that he wanted to address climate issues as well, may also be faced with a backlash brought on from comments by Jürgen Trittin, the former environment minister, who caused outrage with "reap what you sow" statements in the aftermath of the destruction meted out on the US by Hurricane Katrina.
Germany could urge the US to do more to address climate change
While Steinmeier will undoubtedly take a more diplomatic approach, his willingness to broach the subject of climate change and Germany's own stance on the environment may hint at tense discussions on the topic at some point in his future dealings with the US.
The foreign minister also said he would raise the issue of clandestine stopovers at European airports by CIA planes allegedly carrying terror suspects to secret prison camps while in Washington. It is a subject that Steinmeier will almost certainly direct at White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley when the two meet later on Tuesday and one which is likely to become more sensitive as EU investigations into the flights intensify.