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German envoy: Bilateral relations on the mend
The Washington Diplomat / November 2003

By Larry Luxner

Germany's traditional postwar friendship with the United States severely strained over the recent crisis in Iraq  seems to be back on track following a Sept. 24 meeting in New York between President Bush and Chancellor Schroeder.

"What that session did was eliminate, once and for all, the difficulties that had arisen because of Iraq," said Germany's ambassador in Washington, Wolfgang Ischinger. "Both leaders agreed to put these difficulties behind them and move forward together."

In addition, Germany along with France and Russia agreed to drop their opposition to a U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq mandated by the United Nations. Earlier this year, the leaders of all three countries loudly protested the Bush administration's plans to invade Iraq, insisting that it must give UN weapons inspectors more time to do their job. On the other hand, Great Britain, Spain and a number of Eastern European nations supported the idea of going to war and getting rid of Saddam Hussein.

Ignoring the anti-war pleas of millions of demonstrators in Europe as well as in the United States Bush attacked Iraq anyway, without the backing of the UN Security Council. Yet half a year after the White House declared "major hostilities over," Ischinger insists that the German-American relationship has finally returned to what it had been for many years: "A well-oiled machine that works quite effectively across a wide spectrum of issues, from trade and investment to the fight against terrorism to such issues as how to promote stability in Eastern Europe."

Before assuming his current job, Ischinger, 57, spent nearly a decade as a senior official within the German Foreign Ministry.

"I knew Washington quite well, even before arriving as ambassador," he told the Diplomat in a lengthy interview. "I served here in the 1970s and early 1980s, during the final years of the Carter administration. I entertained close contacts with American diplomats, and my counterpart at the State Department was Strobe Talbott."

Yet Ischinger has been in crisis-management mode since literally his first day on the job.

"My wife and I flew into Washington on Sept. 10, 2001, and 9/11 was supposed to be my first working day," he recalled. "What a working day it turned out to be. From my office window, I could actually see the black cloud of smoke rising from the Pentagon."

But the envoy is proud to say that Germany responded to the shock and horror of 9/11 like no other nation.

"Within a few weeks, we were able to collect, spontaneously from German individuals and companies, almost $60 million for the families who had lost loved ones. I established the German-American Solidarity Fund through our embassy, and we were able to make generous donations to the New York Fire Department and other organizations," he said.

"As the German ambassador, it was an immensely rich and rewarding experience to see Americans understand that Germany was trying to repay a little of the debt which we believe we owe America for having stood by our side during the Cold War."

Just as important, says Ischinger, "within weeks after 9/11, Germany departed from what had been its traditional policy of not playing a major role in overseas military activities. We decided that the attack on the World Trade Center needed to be interpreted not just as an attack on the United States, but on the entire free world. That's why we decided to deploy German troops in Afghanistan."

At the moment, he said, some 3,000 German soldiers are stationed in that Central Asian country not to mention a German naval contingent in the Indian Ocean. But no German troops are serving in Iraq, and none are likely to.

Even so, Ischinger says it's important that "regardless of how much we disagreed with America, that's not the issue anymore. The chancellor said we have a stake in making sure America doesn't fail with its mission in Iraq, because instability in that region would directly affect our own national security interests."

And the way not to fail, he suggested, "is to give the Iraqi people a sense of ownership and national identity, and offer them as quickly as possible the opportunity to take the future into their own hands, free from foreign domination."

At the height of the standoff in the UN Security Council, anti-French sentiment rose to new heights in the United States, with members of Congress calling on Americans to boycott French wines and replace french fries with "freedom fries."

Yet there was never much anti-German sentiment despite the Nazi legacy of World War II and the fact that Germany opposed unilateral U.S. military action in Iraq just as forcefully as did France.

Asked why no one in Washington demanded that the United States punish Germany by boycotting Lufthansa, Volkswagen or any other German companies, Ischinger agreed that "it's true that the political frustrations associated with our differences of opinion didn't translate into economic losses for German businesses."

One reason, he suggested, is that well over seven million American servicemen and their families have been stationed in Germany since the 1950s, and "more than 40 million Americans define themselves as having at least partly a German heritage. That has been an asset to our bilateral relationship, and maybe that's why the difficulties weren't so pronounced in our case."

Another possibility is that Germany, unlike France, isn't a permanent member of the UN Security Council meaning that Berlin doesn't carry as much weight as Paris in global affairs.

That, said Ischinger, needs to change.

"My government shares the view of many governments that the composition of the Security Council does not accurately reflect the reality of the world in 2003," he said, pointing out the council's five permanent members  the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and China were chosen in the aftermath of World War II. These days, he said, not only Germany but also Japan, Brazil and India would merit permanent seats based on their sheer population and economic power.

"There should be an attempt to reform the Security Council and adapt the membership to current realities. If that were done, we believe that Germany with 82 million people and one of the world's top three exporting nations  would be one of the candidates for a permanent seat," he explained. "Clearly, Germany plays a significant role in the world economy, not to mention our ability to participate in peacekeeping activities. We have almost 10,000 soldiers deployed around the world today."

Iraq is hardly the only issue where Washington and Berlin don't see eye to eye  for example, the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba and its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

"We happen to believe that global warming is a fact, and that the world needs to take action because its effects will be quite devastating for our generation and future generations," he said. "On this, the U.S. is in serious disagreement not just with Germany but practically all of Europe."

Regarding Cuba, he said, "we are very concerned about the human rights situation there. We condemned the recent crackdowns and the executions that took place not long ago, and in that, we're not far from where the U.S. stands. On the other hand, the embargo hasn't produced much in terms of desired change, so we believe that it should be reviewed. And many members of Congress and the American public share that view."

Ischinger says one issue where the U.S. and Germans have come closer together in recent months is Iran. "We tended to disagree over how to deal with Iran, but in the last few months, we have become united in the determination to make sure Iran will not become another country with nuclear military capability."

Likewise, with regard to continuing violence in the Middle East, Ischinger says Germany has taken a leading role within the European Union on pushing the Israelis and Palestinians toward a peaceful resolution of their differences.

"We all recognize that if we want progress to be achieved in the Mideast, it will happen only under strong U.S. leadership," he said. "No one in Europe believes that U.S. leadership could be replaced by anyone else. It is our strong hope that the Bush administration and future administrations will pursue this issue with the greatest possible determination."

Germany's position on the Middle East is influenced to a large extent by the ghosts of its tortured past. Ischinger said that "when you consider the horrible legacy of the Nazi period and the Holocaust, it is almost a miracle that today, the relationship between Germany and Israel is one of partnership and intense cooperation."

An even bigger miracle is the reunification of Germany itself, which took place in 1990 after 45 years of mutual distrust and suspicion. Although areas of the former communist East still have some catching up to do with the rest of the country, there's no question that Germany today is the dominant economic power of Europe and one of America's most important allies in the world.

Ischinger said it couldn't have happened without help from the United States.

"The German nation is grateful for key support from America in the quest for unity, which was finally accomplished 13 years ago, with decisive help from President Bush's father, and from his entire national security and foreign policy team," he said. "That gratitude is not forgotten by Germans, and is a bond that will survive the occasional tension that we've had and I'm sure we'll have again."

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