28 November 2005

German foreign minister heads Stateside

Less than a week after being sworn into office, the new German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD), has headed off on his first official trip - to the United States. Whilst there, he will first meet with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in New York, before travelling to Washington to meet with US Secretary of State.

The fact that the new Foreign Minister's first trip abroad is taking him the States is supposed to be symbolic of a new direction in German foreign policy vis-a-vis the USA and in particular the Bush administration. Schröder and Bush, as is well known, cared little for each other, and their opposing stances over the Iraq war in particular, as well as Schröder's very close relationship with Jacques Chirac's France, brought with them a distinct deterioration in relations between Washington and Berlin. One of Merkel's stated foreign policy aims is to set a new tone in the Transatlantic relationship, bringing about more constructive dialogue and closer cooperation, though what specific form this new relationship is to take has thus far been left largely unsaid. Certainly, there would not appear to be any chance that the new grand coalition government will revise Germany's stance on Iraq, which was, after all, the major sticking point with Washington. All in all, it would seem that a real "sea-change" in the US-German relationship remains unlikely. Any adjustments are far more likely to be a matter of style and tone, as these comments from Steinmeier in a recent interview would suggest:

In a separate interview with the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he saw no need for a "fresh start" in transatlantic ties despite the lingering tension over German opposition to the US-led Iraq war.

"We are standing by our position (on Iraq) for good reasons," he said, noting that Merkel's new left-right coalition government had also ruled out sending German troops to the war-ravaged country. But the Social Democrat emphasized that Berlin and Washington had "the same interests and goals on the vast majority of issues."

"We support Washington in all its efforts so that peace in the Middle East has a chance," he said. "And we want to make some real progress together on climate protection. The disastrous hurricanes in the south of the United States have also made the American public stop and think."

[Source: Deutsche Welle]
In other words, look for more talk about co-operation, more focus on points of similarity and understanding, but don't expect German troops in Iraq at any time soon, and don't expect Germany to change its stance on indefinite detention without charge of terror suspects or climate change.

The German press today are focussing on the issue of alleged secret CIA flights, involving so-called "special renditions", landing at US air bases in Germany. Steinmeier has stated that he is concerned about these allegations but would not be drawn on whether or not he intends to raise them with Condoleezza Rice. He is, however, under pressure from concerned players on both the left and the right of the spectrum to do so. The feeling amongst journalists and analysts seems to be that this controversial issue is likely to overshadow the positive, symbolic aspect of Steinmeier's US visit, even though that was never the original intention.

Meanwhile, there is also some speculation that Steinmeier and Merkel, who are from different parties, are heading inexorably towards a battle for control over foreign policy issues. The concern centres around the fact that Merkel's announcements about changes in foreign policy direction and tone may prove to be at odds with Steinmeier's own position, which is one of broad support for, and pride in, Schröder's refusal to join the "Coalition of the Willing." At the time, Steinmeier was one of Schröder's closest allies and confidantes, in the role of head of the Federal Chancellery, so he was involved in the policy-making. (This role has been turned into a Ministerial portfolio under the new government, though it was not when Steinmeier filled the post.) Spiegel Online has the best summary and analysis that I've found in English thus far of this potential battle of wills within the new Cabinet. Only time will tell, but it could make for an interesting and possibly turbulent time in German foreign policy over the next few years.

My personal feeling is that it may not, or at least not yet. Merkel's policy direction announcements are, as I've said, more matters of tone and style than concrete policy changes. If Steinmeier is as clever a politician as his supporters maintain, then I see no real reason why he cannot adjust to the new tone and style that Merkel seeks to dictate, while holding on to the anti-Iraq war stance of which he and his party were so proud, and which remain very popular with the German population at large. But I've been wrong before, of course.