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Drozdiak: Relations with Putin Likely a Major Item in Talks between Merkel and Bush

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Author: William Drozdiak, President, American Council on Germany
January 9, 2006

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William Drozdiak, president of the American Council on Germany, says the new chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, sees her January 13 meeting at the White House with President Bush as a chance “to get things off to a good start” in relations between Germany and the United States that had been quite frosty under the preceding German government.

Even though she is likely to suggest that the Guantanamo Bay detention center be closed, Drozdiak says, “I think she’s much more sympathetic to a lot of [the president’s] positions.”

“She’s one of the few German politicians who actually supported the American incursion into Iraq, and although it’s not conceivable that Germany will offer to send troops, the coalition government will probably step up training of Iraqi forces and, I think, do whatever is possible to help extricate American forces from Iraq. “

A former foreign editor for the Washington Post, Drozdiak says “the key subject” in the talks may well be “how to influence President [Vladimir] Putin, who now has the presidency of the G8 [Group of Eight] for this year, giving Russia more of a role to play in global discussions than in the past.”

Drozdiak was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, onJanuary 9, 2006.

For the sake of this interview let’s start out by imagining you’re President Bush and you’re going to see Germany’s new chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the White House on Friday. What do you expect to hear from her?

I think from the standpoint of President Bush he’s looking to develop a much friendlier relationship and professional rapport with Gerhard Schroeder’s successor than he had with Schroeder. As you know, by the end of Schroeder’s term he and Bush were hardly on speaking terms. It’s difficult for the Western alliance when the leader of the most powerful and influential country in Europe is not speaking with the American president.

Now, under Chancellor Merkel I think there’s the opportunity for a whole new relationship. She has already expressed her desire to get things off to a good start with the president, and I think she’s much more sympathetic to a lot of his positions. She’s one of the few German politicians who actually supported the American incursion into Iraq, and although it’s not conceivable that Germany will offer to send troops, the coalition government will probably step up training of Iraqi forces, and I think do whatever is possible to help extricate American forces from Iraq.

The second thing they’ll probably offer to do that will please President Bush is to continue and possibly even increase their role in Afghanistan. Germany has already made the greatest NATO contribution to Afghanistan after the United States. And she’ll also want to spend time talking about President [Vladimir] Putin [of Russia] and the future energy strategy for the West. I think all of this will be well received by President Bush. I think he himself is predisposed to like her. I’ve been told by friends of the president that he has said on occasion that her personal background, having grown up in a communist dictatorship [East Germany], probably means that she appreciates freedom more than most of us.

That’s interesting. Now, she gave an interview over the weekend in which she indicated she would like to see the U.S. prison camp in Guantanamo Bay closed. This is in connection I guess with a Turkish-German who’s a prisoner there, right?


Yes, a German citizen of Turkish descent named Murat Kurnaz who was wrongly imprisoned there. She will present the view, as she’d mentioned in the Spiegel interview, that it would be best in American interests to close down Guantanamo Bay because she’s concerned with the rising tide of anti-Americanism in Europe and in Germany today and indeed in other parts of the world. She believes that it would best improve America’s image by shutting down a place that is associated in the minds of many people with human rights violations. She will weigh in on what is already a debate in the United States, and she’s obviously aware that there are many people in theUnited Stateswho have also urged the president to do the same.

You mentioned public opinion in Germany. I take it polls still show an anti-American attitude?

Well, I think the phenomenon that we see today is, first of all, the new generation has grown up fifteen, sixteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall that does not feel any immediate sense of gratitude toward the United States for its security. And indeed, many Germans, younger Germans today, may feel and indeed express this according to some opinion polls, that the greatest security threat to Germany is being dragged into some misbegotten adventure, whether it be in Iraq, Iran, or somewhere else in theMiddle Eastby their entangled commitments with the Unites States. And so at a time when Germany sits at the geographic heart of an expanding European Union, where it really is at peace with all nine of its neighbors, no longer threatened by an invasion of Russian or Soviet troops, Germans want to enjoy this phase of peace. They are troubled by the overseas or global entanglements that may result from their relations with the United States.

Merkel is in charge of a coalition government with the former ruling party the Social Democrats. Has this affected her ability to rule?

So far she’s off to something of a honeymoon with German voters. Opinion polls show she’s doing extremely well, and she performed admirably in her first encounter with European leaders; she was the one who was crucial to brokering a compromise over a very difficult budget debate back in December at her first, really big foreign-policy challenge she faced. In that way, she proved she is dedicated to the cause of European unity and making peace within the European Union with the other leaders. Now the next big test is to improve the relationship with the United States. It’s going to be difficult because of the nature of her coalition. This is only the second time in post-war history when the two biggest parties in Germany have been forced to get together. What this basically amounts to is a special and perhaps only temporary kind of governing coalition in order to deal with the enormous economic and social challenges faced byGermanytoday. But that was the outcome of the votes in September and after many difficult weeks of negotiations they reached agreement that she would head up this government which will be faced with many domestic challenges.

The domestic challenges included high unemployment and problems with spending, right?

Germany’s running a big deficit. Under the terms of being a member of the Euro club, you have to keep your deficits under 3 percent, and Germany has broken that now for several years running; it has to find a way – if it could raise taxes too much that would cause a further depressing effect on the economy—and she has to try to find a way to put people back to work so that they will be less of a drain on the generous social welfare entitlements in Germany and also create a new sense of hope and inspiration in the people.

I think she’s done that pretty well so far; she’s given a couple of speeches in the Bundestag that have been very well-received. What’s unique about her is that apart from being the first female leader in recent German history, she also comes from the east. But she’s also representative of the new generation, she and the new leader of the Social Democratic Party, Matias Platzekm are both from Eastern Germany, and in a way this augers well for the effort to reconcile the two halves of Germany, which has been a very difficult process over the past sixteen years since the Berlin Wall fell. People still refer to “the wall in people’s minds,” that seems to divide the east and the west.

Just a side issue, she doesn’t speak English, does she?

She speaks some English, and it’s improving. I’ve had lunch with her and she’s quite charming, very quick-witted; she’s got a very sharp intelligence, and she has benefited from the fact that she’s been constantly underestimated by her political foes. The fact that she has survived and thrived indeed within the Christian Democratic Party, which is notorious for its bitter feuding, suggests there’s a lot more Machiavellian quality to her political abilities than people have credited her in the past.

Now in recent weeks the biggest story in Europe, of course, has been Russia’s effort to pressure Ukraine into paying a much higher fee for its natural gas and the impact that had on Europe when it tried to reduce the delivery. Has this been a major problem in German-Russian relations?

Well, I think this is a case where Germany can play really a key role. And I think this will be perhaps the key subject of discussions with President Bush: How to influence President Putin, who now has the presidency of the G8 for this year, giving Russia more of a role to play in global discussions than in the past. Merkel will leave Washington and go later this month toRussiafor talks with Putin.

What Germany is looking for are stable and secure gas supplies. Under Schroeder, her predecessor,Germany negotiated an agreement to bring Russian gas under the Baltic Sea directly to Germany. This has infuriated Poland and the Balkan states, so Merkel will be tested by having to improve the relationship with Putin at the same time as repairing relations with her Eastern neighbors. And I think that this is all part of an effort by Germany and Europe to wean themselves away from supplies of oil and gas from the Middle East, a region of notorious volatility. There has also been a hope that Russia would be integrated more with the West and become a safe and secure supplier. However, this recent crisis with Ukraine has called into question Russia’s reliability. In many respects, I think this was a bad move by Putin because it damaged any confidence that Germany and other European states have in Russia’s promises to provide safe and secure supplies of oil and gas.

Just a footnote here, how has this affected the reaction in Germanyto Schroeder’s becoming president of this new European and Russian pipeline?

This is a consortium that was set up under the Russian consortium, Gazprom, to build a pipeline. It will dole out about $5 billion or so in contracts. And when Schroeder was named chairman of the board of this consortium, it provoked an uproar in Germany because it became clear he had negotiated these arrangements with Putin while still in office. And many people believed this constituted a serious conflict of interest. I think under European rules, if he had been a member of the European Commission or member of the European Parliament he would have been forced to wait at least one year before he could take such a position. But as it is, it has badly hurt his reputation in Germany and I think any chance or any thoughts he may have had about an eventual political comeback will be badly eroded by taking this job.

Is Merkel going to have a chance to meet with members of Congress while she’s in Washington?

Yes, I understand she’s going to have breakfast with several leaders of Congress, from both parties, and I think that it’s primarily a get-acquainted session, and she wants to make herself known to leaders on the Hill. This is a chance for her to meet with the president and become comfortable in their relationship. I think they’re going to meet for an hour or two in the morning and then have lunch together. This would be after the breakfast with the members of congress.

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