After Frosty Times, a Thaw in US-German Relations? ; Bush and Merkel Are Expected to Have Rapport at Friday's Meeting, but Big Challenges Still Dog Transatlantic Ties

By Howard LaFranchi writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, January 12, 2006 | Go to article overview

After Frosty Times, a Thaw in US-German Relations? ; Bush and Merkel Are Expected to Have Rapport at Friday's Meeting, but Big Challenges Still Dog Transatlantic Ties


Howard LaFranchi writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the White House Friday, no one doubts that a closer rapport between the US and German leaderships will be on display. Like President Bush, she hails from the political right, and as a daughter of the former East Germany, she identifies with Mr. Bush's focus on freedom.

The bigger question is whether the diplomatic defrosting portends a deeper restrengthening of US-German relations and indeed of transatlantic cooperation.

Certainly the personal warmth expected between Ms. Merkel and Bush - so different from the chilly relations the president had with former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder - will be a welcome change. But with differences over Iraq and strategies for the international war on terror continuing to dog the relationship, and with some US officials expressing skepticism about the Atlantic alliance's long- term utility, many experts will be looking for signs that the warming is more than a matter of personalities.

"Both sides understand this is an opportunity to build a new dynamic, but people will be watching for whether that translates into any concrete policy initiatives," says Karen Donfried, senior policy director of the German Marshall Fund of the US. "My sense is there won't be [any], that this will be the first step down a much longer path."

Iran on the agenda

Iran and its nuclear program will be on the agenda, and the two leaders can be expected to express a common insistence that Iran not develop nuclear weapons. Some observers speculate that after Iran's resumption of its nuclear research program this week, the two leaders could go further and announce an initiative to take Iran before the United Nations Security Council.

But German officials say it is probably "too early" for such a step. They add, however, that a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency later this month could prompt such a move. European Union foreign ministers were set to meet today on Iran, which could move the EU closer to Security Council referral.

On other fronts, Merkel could use the US meeting to demonstrate decreasing tensions over Iraq by announcing an acceleration of German training of Iraqi police. German officials are hinting such an announcement could be in the offing.

Still, the improvement in US-German atmospherics is not likely to reverse the general drifting apart in transatlantic relations, some experts say.

"The climate has dramatically improved, but below the surface the rift remains alive and well," says Charles Kupchan, who teaches 21st- century geopolitics at Georgetown University in Washington. "The trend lines continue to be those of fragmentation and disillusion."

Mr. Kupchan, who is also a transatlantic scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Iraq war is the dividing line - when Germany changed from being a country that followed Washington's leadership "as a matter of course," to instead becoming a European leader increasingly independent of Washington that seeks "to rebuild relations on new terms. …

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