Transatlantic Relations With a ″Series of Problems″ | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 10.01.2006

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Transatlantic Relations With a "Series of Problems"

German Chancellor Angela Merkel heads to Washington on Thursday for her two-day inaugural visit. DW-WORLD spoke to a top German official about the expectations of the trip and Merkel's anticipated warm welcome.

The White House is set to welcome Merkel to Washington this week

The White House is set to welcome Merkel to Washington this week

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel travels to Washington this week, she will be accompanied by Karsten D. Voigt, the foreign ministry's coordinator for German-American cooperation. The former foreign-policy spokesman of the Social Democratic Party parliamentary group in the German Bundestag has held this position since 1999. His main task is to strengthen transatlantic relations.

DW-WORLD: Chancellor Merkel has said she wants to strengthen Germany's ties to the United States and reduce tensions between Berlin and Washington that existed under former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. While there are hopes that this visit could be a serious opportunity for diplomatic improvement, what sort of change can we realistically expect?

Karsten D. Voigt: There was, in fact, a low point in relations in the context of the Iraq war. But the relationship subsequently improved, already to the previous government. This was evident during President Bush's visit to Mainz (in February 2005). Now, following federal elections, these relations are to be further deepened and improved. That is the intention of both the US and German sides. This will certainly be evident in the protocol and in the tone taken.

So will Merkel's visit be evidence more of a new tone in transatlantic relations rather than new policies by the German government?

There is a great deal of continuity in the politics. The former German government was also in favor of strengthening Europe and, at the same time, striving for good transatlantic ties. This is also the goal of the new government.

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Karsten D. Voigt has been the coordinator for German-American cooperation since 1999

But there is no question that Washington is meeting Angela Merkel with a positive bias following the conflicts with former Chancellor Schröder. It's expected that she is pro-Atlantic not only ideologically, from her convictions, but also due to her socialization in the former East Germany -- that she particularly values the US commitment to reunification and freedom. This is also probably the case.

Do you think Merkel will be able to meet peoples' expectations in Washington?

I think the White House and the State Department are familiar with the situation in Germany. They know the leading politicians and political parties. The expectations are realistic there.

Gerhard Schröder bei George Bush

Former Chancellor Schröder and President Bush didn't see eye-to-eye on the Iraq war

But in the public eye, especially in contrast to the excessive criticism of the previous chancellor, the expectations towards the new chancellor are perhaps larger than she herself can live up to.

A series of problems remain. The fact that Germany has lesser military capabilities, for example. It is strongly active in the Balkans, in Afghanistan and other parts of the world. So even if it was politically desired, which isn't the case, it couldn't deploy any relevant units of troops to Iraq. For that reason, Washington will not ask this of Merkel.

What sort of welcome can Merkel expect in Washington? Will she get the red-carpet treatment?

I think it won't only be the red carpet. They will show her in every matter of protocol that she is personally welcome as chancellor and that with her, they want to improve relations and that they consider her an important representative of Europe. Several people have not met her yet and so they are curious as well.

Wiedervereinigung p178

The fall of the Wall in 1989 paved the way for Merkel's career

Chancellor Merkel is also a representative of a new generation, namely that of 1989/1990. These are those people who, like her, could only actively get involved in politics because the Wall fell or because they reached the age to enter politics at that time. That is the new generation of the future, which will shape German politics in the next few years.

In the past, Merkel has been accused of being too uncritical of the US. Yet she surprised many observers last weekend by strongly criticizing the US prison camp in Guantanamo Bay and said she would address the issue in her talks with Bush. It appears Merkel is not going to mince words on certain topics the US administration might prefer to tone down. Should Bush be ready for a dispute?

I think the term dispute is wrong. There is simply a German consensus on Guantanamo and certain other methods employed in the fight against international terrorism. But these are legitimate discussions in democratic societies. We had similar controversial discussions in the 1970s when we faced terrorism here in Germany.

What will be the main focus of Merkel's talks with Bush?

I think that the entire palette of bilateral and multilateral issues will be addressed. There will be enough time for this, both in informal talks as in the delegations. Bilaterally, we have few problems. It is mostly a matter of how Germany and the United States can work together in order to solve problems on Europe's perimeters, such as in the Balkans, or how they think about Russia or Ukraine, how they view the Middle East, and how to address Iran's ambitions to possess nuclear weapons and the scandalous statements by the Iranian leadership in regard to Israel.

Do you think US-German relations will ever return to the closeness of the past?

I think they will be -- and can be -- as close as in the past. But at the same time, they will be different. During the Cold War, Germany was in the center of the global conflict and totally dependent on the protection of the United States. Now, we're happily no longer in the center of the conflict, but we are asked to contribute to the solutions of problems in other parts of the world. At the same time, we are less dependent on the protection of the United States. This means we have to re-define our relationship to the United States -- a close relationship -- but anyhow a changing one in correlation to the earlier periods of the Cold War.

US Soldaten in Deutschland gelbe Bänder Flagge

Germany has had a very close relationship to the United States since World War II

Will America's reputation among the German public change if Merkel manages to warm up relations between Washington and Berlin?

Some. The major impact is defined less by style, rather than by substance. This is very clear in the case of some decisions by the US administration. So far, the campaign against international terrorism is very controversial inside the United States, but it is even more controversial in Europe. You can smooth these differences by language, but in the end, you also have to define a common line in terms of substance.

Do you think the European public will continue to be very critical of the United States?

Not of the United States, but of specific policies. The United States have been attacked by international terrorism, and now many Europeans are skeptical about the message which is used in the United States to defend that country against international terrorism.

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