Drozdiak: Merkel’s Visit Points Up ’Big Improvement’ in United States-German Relations

Drozdiak: Merkel’s Visit Points Up ’Big Improvement’ in United States-German Relations

William Drozdiak, president of the independent American Council on Germany, says the White House meeting last week between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Bush indicates “they seem to have struck up a much more friendly rapport than what Bush had with her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder."

January 8, 2007 3:12 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

William Drozdiak, president of the independent American Council on Germany, says the White House meeting last week between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Bush indicates “they seem to have struck up a much more friendly rapport than what Bush had with her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder." Drozdiak says the Bush-Merkel connection—they have now met three times—accounts for "the big improvement in German-American relations.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Washington last Thursday for a lightning visit to meet with President Bush. They had dinner and there was a press conference. What was the impetus for this meeting?

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As of January, Germany is holding the presidency of the G8 leading industrial nations and also the presidency of the European Union, so she wanted to meet early in her term with the president in order to brief him on her agenda and try to coordinate policy with the United States over the coming year. As you know, they have already met twice since she was elected chancellor in 2005, and they seem to have struck up a much more friendly rapport than what Bush had with her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder. That has accounted, in large part, for the big improvement in German-American relations.

Bush’s international agenda right now is almost exclusively on Iraq, but I’m sure he welcomed the diversion to talk about the relative exotica of European issues with her.

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She has a large global agenda, and she feels Bush has come around now to seeing the virtues of multilateralism; at least the hope in Europe these days is that the United States realizes it cannot solve all the problems in Iraq or elsewhere on its own, and that it has to reach out for help from European allies. They actually discussed, apart from global trade issues, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Israel-Palestine, because Merkel wants to make a big push for a peace settlement in the Middle East during the coming months and Germany may have a role to play there. There’s also the question of Russia and energy security issues, which Bush has identified as an area of bipartisan cooperation with the Democrats that he wants to emphasize in the coming months.

Let’s talk about these trade issues first. It was reported that she’s been pushing for a transatlantic free trade zone. I guess if the Doha Round [on world trade] can’t be saved, the free-trade zone idea might be launched. Can you discuss that?

She is taking account of the fact that despite political tensions in recent years, there’s been a tremendous surge in trade and investment flows across the Atlantic. In fact, the transatlantic economy in terms of trade and investment accounts for $3 trillion dollars a year, which is about half of all global economic activity. So, despite all the hype about China and India becoming the emerging economic superpowers of the twenty-first century, the U.S.-European relationship is fundamentally the most important part of the global economy. And in order to get a successful Doha trade round concluded in the coming months—and the idea is to get it done by the summer when the president’s authority on fast track negotiating would expire—they need a breakthrough on curtailing farm subsidies. This is something that both the United States and Europe spend an enormous amount of money on, and it distorts the markets to the detriment of the Third World.

Is anything possible on that front?

Today, Peter Mandelson, the European Union trade commissioner, and the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, are in Washington to meet with the president and try to get him to use his authority to push for substantially reduced subsidies so that Europeans and Americans can cut a deal on the issue. If that were to be the case, it would clear the way for an agreement with important developing countries like Brazil and India and possibly open the way for a successful conclusion to the trading round. But it’s still a long shot at this stage.

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Which side is Merkel on? I had been under the impression the Europeans were dragging their heels more than the Americans.

The Europeans spend a huge amount of money on economic subsidies to prop up their agriculture. But the Americans are also at fault in areas such as sugar, and corn, and the way in which we [Americans] subsidize our farmers so that they can export their products at very cheap prices. This undercuts the possibility of Third World farmers selling in their own markets. Both sides are really at fault, because this defeats the purpose of trying to get Third World countries to develop their own agriculture and thus improve their own standards of living through fair trade. And this is really a glaring case of hypocrisy on the part of the Western industrial powers.

Talk about the free-trade zone idea.

Merkel wants to clear away the obstacles, such as differing regulatory standards and other problems that inhibit investment across the Atlantic, and also to enable producers on both sides of the Atlantic to sell in the other’s markets. For example, take a car company building cars in both Germany and the United States. It would be the same company but they still would have to adapt their bumpers to different standards in order to meet crash tests. All the experts say this is ridiculous. Both sides ought to have the same standards and thus producers could sell the same automobile in the two markets.

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And on the world issues like the Middle East—I guess Bush did pledge to try to get something going on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

My understanding is something will happen fairly soon. One of the ideas for naming John Negroponte as deputy secretary of state is to free up some time for Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, to travel to the Middle East and devote a large portion of her time in the coming months trying to reach some kind of a breakthrough on a larger Middle East peace settlement, particularly as regards Israel and Palestine. Merkel has been pushing this, along with [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, and [President] Jacques Chirac in France. If the United States is going to improve its image in the Arab world, the best thing it could do would be to revive the so-called “road map” to peace through the intercession of  the United States, Russia, United Nations, and the European Union, those four entities who drafted the “road map.”

Merkel has met with President Vladimir Putin. Now there’s a flap over oil deliveries through Belarus to Europe. Did she convey to Bush her sense of relations with Russia right now?

Russia’s been going through a period of quiet as President Putin consolidates power in what seems to be increasingly an authoritarian regime. While that has stirred concern in the United States and Europe, Europeans realize that they and us need to work with Putin on a number of fronts. One is in terms of secure arrangements to provide for the uninterrupted flow of oil and gas from the Siberian fields. The coming months will also prove to be the crunch time for an agreement on Kosovo—whether that province of Serbia will be allowed to become independent. This issue has been languishing for the last few years, but the feeling is that some kind of determination has to be made this year, and Russia’s assent is absolutely vital. If they decide to veto this, that could lead to renewed instability in the Balkans. The United States will also need Russia’s help on trying to get Iran to forswear nuclear weapons, and also on North Korea. Russia’s permanent membership on the Security Council is a very important reason to try to win its cooperation. At least that was what Merkel was trying to argue when she met with the president last Thursday.

This latest flap over the pipelines going through Belarus—is that just a minor blip?

It’s primarily concerning the cheap prices in the past that Russia has given to neighbors like Belarus and Ukraine. In Belarus’ case, the Russians are trying to squeeze them to accept price rises; in Ukraine, there’s a question of whether in the past that has involved political pressure as well. These are special arrangements that date back to the Soviet Union’s days when the outlying areas of the Soviet empire, in Belarus and Ukraine, were given very favorable prices for gas and oil. Now Russia says since they’re independent countries, they ought to be paying closer to world-market prices.

But does this affect the Germans much? I guess if it really was cut off over a period of time it would hurt German’s input.

In the case of gas, you have a pipeline that’s going through Belarus and Poland and then into Germany, so any interruption of gas to Belarus is going to affect the other countries down the line. Germany imports today 40 percent of its gas from Russia, but the recent problems involving these interruptions, first with Ukraine last year and now with Belarus this year, has led Germany to try to seek out other arrangements. The Germans have just concluded a deal with Norway that will enable a new pipeline to be built so that they will at least have access to another secure supply of gas.

With Chancellor Merkel in office now for some time period of time, she will become the senior leader of the major countries in Europe, right? Because there’ll probably be a new president in France, and a new prime minister in Britain in the near future.

Right. There’s probably rarely been such a vacuum of power in the West. You have an American president entering the twilight days of his presidency having lost control of both houses of Congress, and with his attention almost totally absorbed by Iraq and Afghanistan. Then you have the two longest-serving leaders in Europe, Tony Blair, prime minister of Britain, and Jacques Chirac, president of France, about to leave office, probably in the months to come. And that leaves Merkel as the only leader in the West who really has a fairly secure mandate. While she’s had some problems at home with the grand coalition that she runs with the Social Democrats, it looks like she’s at least secure in power for another two years. However, she’s had difficulties with her domestic agenda, even though her Christian Democratic party and the Social Democrats together control two-thirds of the parliament. The coalition can’t agree on how far to push economic reforms. Therefore, she’s looking to bolster her profile at home with an activist agenda in foreign affairs.

I’m just curious, in public opinion polling in Germany, does the United States come in any higher than it did a year ago?

No, in fact over the past year, with all of the gruesome images coming out of Iraq, the image of America has deteriorated even further. The question is really whether this is a long-term phenomenon, or whether it will perhaps turn upward with a new presidency. Ironically, a striking thing is young people have perhaps a greater immigration flow into the United States than at any other time in recent memory. There’s been a real brain drain with a lot of bright young Germans coming to the United States to study and deciding to stay on and work here because they find more opportunities here than they would at home.


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