This weekend, a German chancellor will for the first time join an American president on the beaches of Normandy to commemorate D-Day. The gathering ought to mark a historical watershed the culmination of decades of partnership between post-war Germany and the country that led the charge to rid Europe of Nazism and fascism.
Instead, Gerhard Schroeder and George W. Bush will meet at perhaps the lowest point in U.S.-German relations since World War II. To be sure, the dialogue between Berlin and Washington has improved somewhat since the acrimonious rift that occurred in the UN Security Council over Iraq. Against the backdrop of the chaos and violence in Iraq, however, estrangement between Germany and the United States continues, impairing the repair of transatlantic relations for the foreseeable future.
Although both sides share the blame for this state of affairs, it is the Bush administration that is primarily responsible. Bush has backed away from the liberal brand of internationalism that guided the United States throughout the second half of the twentieth century, opting instead for a unilateralist and abrasive alternative that has cost America its legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Unadorned by the cloak of legitimacy, U.S. primacy now does more to provoke resentment than to earn respect.
The Iraq war was the culmination of this excess. It was launched under false pretenses; all of Washingtons original justifications for the war have evaporated no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, no link to Al-Qaeda, no progress on the Palestine-Israel front, no flowering of democracy across the Middle East.
Arguably, the Iraq war is the single greatest mistake that the United
States has ever made in the conduct of its foreign relations. The results have already been disastrous and the worst may be yet to come. Under these circumstances, Germany, France, and other opponents of the war were correct to make their objections known. Allies have not just a right, but also an obligation, to speak up when one among them veers off course. Furthermore, Europes skepticism about the need for war and its assessment of the likely consequences have proved to be far more accurate than Washingtons views on these issues.
Nonetheless, Berlin did err in two important respects. First, the Schroeder government turned what could have been a contained diplomatic dispute into an ugly public confrontation, voicing its position through press conferences and speeches rather than private diplomatic channels. The rift spilled into the public domain, the stuff of high politics becoming a deeper political and social divide. Second, Schroeder deliberately orchestrated a clash with the Bush administration for electoral gain, shoring up his bid for reelection by standing up to Washington. By encouraging rather than resisting anti-American sentiment, Schroeder risks stirring up political currents in Germany that may put the ultimate repair of transatlantic relations out of reach.
During a recent visit to Goettingen, I met a worried American father who has been living in Germany for over a decade. His children attend local German schools. They are now being taunted and isolated at school because they are Americans.
If younger Europeans come of age as anti-Americans, even the best leadership on both sides of the Atlantic will prove futile in salvaging the West.
This story is particularly worrisome given that the generation of Germans and Americans who worked together to rebuild and pacify Europe are in the midst of retiring from political life. Their personal bonds and Atlanticist spirit will retire with them. The rising generation of leaders is less committed to the vitality of the Atlantic bond, as George W. Bush and Gerhard Schroeder have amply demonstrated.
Generational change, coupled with rising anti-American sentiment across Europe, does not bode well for the Atlantic partnership. Despite the upbeat statements and photographs that will no doubt emerge from the events in Normandy, German-American relations are in a precarious state.
Looking ahead, three steps have the potential to help put the relationship on a better trajectory. First, even when they disagree, Berlin and Washington must contain their disputes and German leaders must act responsibly to curb growing anti-American sentiment. Second, Germany should do more to make the EU a capable diplomatic and military actor, enabling Europe to exercise more influence in Washington and providing the EU and the United States the opportunity to forge a more mature and balanced partnership. Third, the United States must rediscover a liberal and moderate brand of internationalism that will restore the worlds confidence in U.S. leadership a task that ultimately rests with the U.S. electorate this November.