After frosty times, a thaw in US-German relations?

Bush and Merkel are expected to have rapport at Friday's meeting, but big challenges still dog transatlantic ties.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits the White House Friday, no one doubts that a closer rapport between the US and German leaderships will be on display. Like President Bush, she hails from the political right, and as a daughter of the former East Germany, she identifies with Mr. Bush's focus on freedom.

The bigger question is whether the diplomatic defrosting portends a deeper restrengthening of US-German relations and indeed of transatlantic cooperation.

Certainly the personal warmth expected between Ms. Merkel and Bush - so different from the chilly relations the president had with former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder - will be a welcome change. But with differences over Iraq and strategies for the international war on terror continuing to dog the relationship, and with some US officials expressing skepticism about the Atlantic alliance's long-term utility, many experts will be looking for signs that the warming is more than a matter of personalities.

"Both sides understand this is an opportunity to build a new dynamic, but people will be watching for whether that translates into any concrete policy initiatives," says Karen Donfried, senior policy director of the German Marshall Fund of the US. "My sense is there won't be [any], that this will be the first step down a much longer path."

Iran on the agenda

Iran and its nuclear program will be on the agenda, and the two leaders can be expected to express a common insistence that Iran not develop nuclear weapons. Some observers speculate that after Iran's resumption of its nuclear research program this week, the two leaders could go further and announce an initiative to take Iran before the United Nations Security Council.

But German officials say it is probably "too early" for such a step. They add, however, that a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency later this month could prompt such a move. European Union foreign ministers were set to meet today on Iran, which could move the EU closer to Security Council referral.

On other fronts, Merkel could use the US meeting to demonstrate decreasing tensions over Iraq by announcing an acceleration of German training of Iraqi police. German officials are hinting such an announcement could be in the offing.

Still, the improvement in US-German atmospherics is not likely to reverse the general drifting apart in transatlantic relations, some experts say.

"The climate has dramatically improved, but below the surface the rift remains alive and well," says Charles Kupchan, who teaches 21st-century geopolitics at Georgetown University in Washington. "The trend lines continue to be those of fragmentation and disillusion."

Mr. Kupchan, who is also a transatlantic scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the Iraq war is the dividing line - when Germany changed from being a country that followed Washington's leadership "as a matter of course," to instead becoming a European leader increasingly independent of Washington that seeks "to rebuild relations on new terms."

"Common values" have replaced dependence as the transatlantic relationship's chief attribute, he adds, but that change requires deeper consultation and cooperation - something Kupchan says the Bush administration is pursuing with Europe in the second term.

But it also leaves the door open to disagreement: For all the common vision on democracy's enlargement, economic development, and fighting AIDS, he says, there is also a list of issues over which the two sides part company, including Iraq, the International Criminal Court, climate change, and US policy toward detainees in the war on terror.

Examples of European countries prepared to roil relations with the United States extend beyond Germany. The Netherlands has so far not extended the mission of its forces within NATO in Afghanistan. If confirmed, such a move could threaten NATO's plans to expand into volatile parts of the country. The Dutch debate has prompted some US officials to question the long-term viability of the Atlantic alliance, if countries opt out of what are deemed crucial missions.

Desire for the US to be world leader

German officials say questions about US treatment of detainees at Guantánamo and at secret foreign prisons - an issue of enough importance to European public opinion that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice focused on it during a recent European trip - are meant to help the US rebuild its leadership role.

"We want the US to be the world leader, but to do that we see that the US has to regain its moral high ground," says one European diplomat in Washington. Issues of US treatment of foreigners since the Abu Ghraib scandal have contributed to a decline in America's global image, the official says, and in turn make the US leadership role more difficult.

Indeed, Kupchan says public opinion is one complicating factor that Merkel must face as she seeks to improve relations with the US. Another is that Merkel heads a coalition government - one in which the foreign ministry remains in hands that have a more tempered view of US relations.

Still, the leader-to-leader warmth that is anticipated for tomorrow's meeting has its roots in similar perspectives that are likely to infuse future actions.

Ms. Donfried of the German Marshall Fund notes, for example, that Merkel stressed in her inaugural address the role that gaining freedom has played in her life. "That's something that will resonate in the Bush White House," she says.

It is also likely, she adds, to cause Merkel to give "a different priority" to the perspective of Central and Eastern Europeans - a perspective, experts note, that is generally closer to Washington than that of other Europeans.

As one German official notes, there is good reason for Merkel to value America's role in the world. "Without US support for [German] reunification, a woman from the east could not be leading Germany today and meeting the American president."

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