For the last 40 years, U.S.-German relations have been one of the cornerstones of Western security. Today, however, these relations are at their lowest point in decades.
Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's categorical refusal during the recent German electoral campaign to participate in any military action against Iraq, even under a U.N. mandate, and remarks by his justice minister comparing President Bush's tactics to those of Hitler have infuriated the Bush administration and led to a virtual cold war between Washington and Berlin.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld refused to meet with his German counterpart, Peter Struck, at a meeting of allied defense ministers in Warsaw in September.
Such snubs are usually reserved for adversaries, not close allies.
Unless leaders on both sides take steps to repair the damage, relations could seriously atrophy. Neither Germany nor the U.S. can afford to let this happen.
Germany is the most important economic and political actor in Europe. Its support is critical to achieving many of Washington's policy goals. And while Germany is unlikely to participate in a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, use of U.S. bases in Germany and German airspace would be critical.
The visit today to Washington by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer provides a useful opportunity to begin rebuilding this important relationship. Managing the delicate political issues raised by the Iraq situation will be far easier if German and U.S. politicians are not sulking or slinging mud at each other.
Moreover, there are signs that Germany is ready to make up. German officials recently indicated that Germany might be willing to take over the leadership of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan when the Turkish mandate is completed at the end of the year. This can be viewed as an olive branch to the Bush administration, which should use it to begin rebuilding relations.
There are several ways to do this:
- Improve consultations. Schroeder's disenchantment with Washington has in
part been driven by his feeling that he was not adequately consulted on many
issues that affected Germany's security. While consultations are not a panacea
for resolving deep-seated policy differences, they could help diminish their
- Find new ways to deepen defense cooperation. The U.S. should encourage Germany
to play an active role in the new NATO response force proposed by Rumsfeld
in Warsaw. This would be a concrete demonstration of Berlin's readiness to
address the new threats facing the alliance.
- Liberalize export controls and open U.S. defense markets to German and other European firms. While the U.S. must protect sensitive technology, current procedures -- with licenses needlessly delayed or mired in bureaucracy -- make it difficult to do business.
Germany also needs to do its part. In particular, it should accelerate the transformation of its military forces to be able to better contribute to alliance security.
While Berlin has taken important steps in this direction in the last several years, it still has too many forces devoted to Cold War missions.
Also, Germany, which now has one of the lowest levels of defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product among the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members -- just above that of Luxembourg -- needs to increase its defense budget, not cut it further, if it wants to be regarded in Washington as a serious defense partner.
These measures would not remove all the problems in U.S.-German relations. But they would help rebuild a relationship that has become badly frayed.
F. Stephen Larrabee, who was on the National Security Council staff in the Carter administration, is a European security specialist at RAND.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on October 30, 2002. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.