Germany and the United States in the Age of Terror

By Abenheim, Donald | Naval War College Review, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Germany and the United States in the Age of Terror


Abenheim, Donald, Naval War College Review


Ideas, Domestic Politics, and the International System of States

As the shock waves in the realms of ideas and geopolitical strategy rolled outward from Ground Zero on 11 September 2001, the edifice of German-American security and collective defense shuddered and soon piled up collateral damage in Washington, New York, Paris, Berlin, and beyond. In the aftermath of the terror attacks, culminating in the spring 2003 Anglo-American-Australian-Polish blitzkrieg against Baathist Iraq, the German-U.S. bond, a basic element of the Euro-Atlantic security order that has prevailed for more than a half-century since the end of World War II, seems to be in the process of collapse. Germany and the United States are publicly at odds, and the ties that bind our countries appear to have disintegrated into vituperation and invective that recall the world of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.1 If this cornerstone of the international system of states changes further for the worse-and any significant German retreat from the U.S. and North Atlantic orientation that has sustained liberal democracy and prosperity in and around the Federal Republic of Germany for decades counts as "for the worse"-unpredictable consequences will follow for the United States and the world order most congenial to it.

What accounts for the rift between Washington and Berlin at present? No single cause emerges from an examination of this situation that hopes to go beyond the facile, reactive, if not jingoistic, analyses of the chattering classes in Berlin and Washington. Rather, the current strain is wrought of a convergence of forces, complicating manifestations of history, ideology, experience, and ambition that have always swirled around the German-American relationship, however inchoately. For a variety of reasons, these factors have coalesced to exacerbate tensions and produce a troubling reaction in the last several months since the American coalition against terror marched to war, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. This article examines these complicating factors and the circumstances that have made them so virulent of late.

The following focuses on the German side of the problem, first tracing the role of ideas in German politics and society, the ideological framework on which the current debate is built.2 Simply put, in the first instance, since the origins of such ideas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there have endured mutually negative images in Germany and the United States as concerns politics, society, and culture among political elites; these well-worn negative images have taken on a new virulence in the present crisis because of the upswing in nationalist sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of Bin Ladenist terror. Secondly, these ideas interact with domestic political figures and factors that, in the German case, have been particularly important in the transformation of external relations since the waning phase of the first Gerhard Schroder cabinet after 11 September 2001.4 That is, Schroder is very different from Helmut Kohl as concerns German-American relations, and his source of power and influence in German politics differs from those of his Atlanticist predecessors. Thus, the analysis here turns to the role of German domestic politics in Berlin's external policy today, developments that have not always met with much understanding among foreign policy elites on these shores.

Third, there is the matter of security and defense policy in Germany, particularly the German aversion to extraterritorial operations-an aversion that, although such policy has given way to a much more global orientation since 1990, continues to brake German enthusiasm for sending soldiers overseas compared to, say, the British and French.5 As we shall see, in the formation of security and defense policy in Germany and the United States, the forces dubious about U.S. diplomacy and strategy in Germany find their echo, as it were, in those figures and institutions skeptical of the phenomena recently caricatured by Robert Kagan. …

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