German-American Relations after the Iraq War: Defining New Common Ground Is Better Than Bemoaning Old Disputes

By Voigt, Karsten D. | Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly, July 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

German-American Relations after the Iraq War: Defining New Common Ground Is Better Than Bemoaning Old Disputes


Voigt, Karsten D., Hampton Roads International Security Quarterly


It has become accepted practice even among dyed-in-the-wool "Atlanticists" to depict the current dispute over policy on Iraq as the beginning of a permanent estrangement. Because we face new challenges, transatlantic relations will change. This does not, however, mean that they must deteriorate. On the contrary: If we succeed in defining common answers to changed risks in the future, the transatlantic partnership will become an even greater global stability factor than it has been in the past.

Given the highly successful track record of the German-American relationship over the past decades, I would first like to take the liberty of pointing out that German-American relations have far less deteriorated than some people claim. The transatlantic partnership, along with the process of European unification, remains a constituent element of German foreign policy. Its underlying foundation of shared democratic values has also remained unchanged. Compared to the situation prior to the Iraq war, however, differences of opinion have become more pronounced on the issues of the use of military force as an instrument of policy, multilateralism and compliance with international law.

Knowledgeable individuals try to counter the pessimists with figures, stating that a solid foundation of more than 90 percent of all transatlantic relations is completely unproblematic. My own experience in the course of trips, daily work contacts and personal conversations with Americans in their own country and in Germany has also been essentially positive: Outside Washington even very recently there have been relatively few negative remarks, let alone reproaches. But here as elsewhere in a time marked by rapidly changing headlines and pictures, bad tidings seem to capture greater attention than the usual and the continuous: There is talk of concerned parents who refuse to allow their children to participate in school exchanges for fear of anti-American harassment. These isolated cases should be juxtaposed with the transatlantic scholarships, trips and business and working relationships that have not been cancelled or terminated.

Nevertheless, we must realistically admit one thing: Transatlantic relations have been strained by the disagreement between the governments over the Iraq war.

Even prior to this, however, there had already been differences of opinion on a number of important points: disarmament and arms control, Kyoto, the International Criminal Court, the death penalty. This friction was also a by-product of the fact that transatlantic relations had become ever closer. Increasing economic and social integration and ongoing cultural exchange have served to intensify the quasi-domestic character of relations. Today people on both sides of the Atlantic discuss issues that have traditionally been reserved to the domestic policy sphere: environmental and consumer protection, internal security and the death penalty, to name but a few. The domestic policy debates on both sides of the Atlantic influence one other, especially during election campaigns.

The fact that these differences of opinion exist is not in itself problematic, for differences are inevitable even among close partners. What is critical, however, is how they are handled. They cannot be allowed to lead to a categorization as friend or foe but must instead be addressed and discussed dispassionately and objectively, with the necessary knowledge of and understanding for each other''s situation and precise joint analysis of their underlying causes.

The majority of Germans are aware of the profound changes in the threat analysis for the United States associated with 11 September 2001 and the policy shift that these have entailed. There is widespread public understanding of the ramifications of these events: After September 11th, the Germans expressed their solidarity with the American people often with moving gestures of support and sympathy. …

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