Traveling by car in Germany and the Czech Republic for three weeks was a good way for my wife and me to get a European perspective on U.S. foreign policy at a time of rapid change. Fortunately, this trip coincided with President Bush's visits to Berlin, Paris, and Rome to confer with NATO leaders and Moscow to cement a new strategic relationship with President Putin.
One purpose of our trip was to join family members in meeting distant relatives from various parts of Germany, on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. This gathering took place near Ludwigstadt, a town on the border between eastern and western Germany. Here we learned about the problems the Federal Republic continues to encounter in trying to integrate the two sections of Germany that were separated for forty-five years during the Cold War. Roads, buildings, restaurants, and shops in the east are much improved since reunification in 1990, but a gap remains in the attitudes of eastern Germans, especially older ones, on what is seen as unbridled materialism in the west.
We also spent a few days each in Munich, Prague, Dresden, Rudolstadt, Nurnberg, and Garmisch engaging a variety of people in conversation about economic conditions. The introduction of a new European currency, the euro, has been smooth in Germany even though some complain that prices in the stores, especially restaurants, were raised after its introduction. Our discussions on international affairs triggered criticism of U.S. policy, on two major issues.
Fear of an American attack on Iraq is widespread in Germany (and elsewhere in Europe). The anxiety reflects an instinctive abhorrence of war because nearly every European country, particularly Germany, experienced devastation during World War II and severe hardship in its aftermath. In addition, West Germany took responsibility in 1990 for integrating l7 million east Germans whose economic situation after nearly half a century under Communist rule was third-rate by comparison.
As a result, Germans don't want to risk their security and favorable living standard by joining the United States in another war in the Persian Gulf--unless Europe itself is threatened.
So far, George Bush has not convinced Germans (and most Europeans) that Saddam Hussein is so great a threat to Europe that he must be removed through military action if political pressure fails to produce a "regime change."
A second issue, stopping the bloodshed in Palestine, is an even more emotional one for many Europeans, not only Germans. The complaint heard is that Israel's invasion of West Bank cities in April, including Bethlehem, was "brutal" and that President Bush should have used "real pressure" on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to stop it.. Although this criticism of Israel and America also deplores the Palestinian suicide bombing of Israeli civilians, there is more willingness in Europe than the United States to attribute these extreme actions to Palestinians' despair over Israel's military occupation and the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements.
Last month the deputy leader of Germany's liberal Free Democratic Party, Jurgen Moellemann, got into political hot water by asserting that anti-Semitism was growing in Germany and that a major reason was Prime Minister Sharon's policies against Palestinians. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder suggested that Free Democrats were playing politics with anti-Semitism in hopes of gaining votes in the September elections. Edmund Stoiber, leader of the Christian Democrats, also criticized "playing with the fires of anti-Semitism for electoral purposes.".
The reality is that the Germans, like the French and other Europeans, are deeply ambivalent in their attitude toward their Jewish citizens. This results from Europe's appalling treatment of the Jews during World War II. And while it would be foolish to dismiss the latent evidence of anti-Semitism in Germany, it would be equally misguided to deny that recent military actions by the Sharon government in the West Bank contributes to anti-Jewish sentiment.
President Bush's appearance is Berlin on May 23-24 did much to soften, but not dispel criticism of his policies. In a speech to the Bundestag on May 23 he appealed for solidarity in NATO for a global effort to stop terrorism. He said "we are building and defending the same house of freedom--its doors open to all of Europe's people, its windows looking out to global challenges beyond." He reminded Germans that they had failed to stop Nazism before it destroyed their country. And he assured them that America continued to value its European allies and would consult them regularly.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung's columnist, Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger, commented approvingly the next day: "After all, one fundamental truth that tends to get lost in the rough and tumble of everyday politics is that the United States and Europe, Germany included, have entered into what, in economic terms, is the most important alliance the world has ever seen, and in doing so, they have created a truly unique political relationship as well."
The president was well received also in Moscow where he and President Vladimir Putin signed significant agreements about reducing nuclear weapons and reaching an understanding about strategic defense. In Rome, where NATO leaders welcomed Russia into associate membership, Bush received much credit for negotiating a new relationship with Russia after nearly half a century of Cold War.
Only in Paris did the president come in for serious criticism. President Jacques Chirac pressed him on the need to consult closely with his European allies if he wanted their cooperation in foreign policy. Although Bush had emphasized in Berlin that he valued the views of allies, he was not impressed by Chirac's lecturing him on foreign policy, especially on the U.S. confrontation with Iraq, which France opposes. Paris views itself as foreign policy spokesman for Europe and thinks Washington should give its views greater heed. The Bush administration does not agree.
Europeans may have reason to question Bush's sincerity about consulting closely after they read his speech to the graduating class at West Point on June 1. In it the president said that "our security will require all Americans to be forward looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives."
Europeans, like many Americans, may worry whether the president will now launch a preemptive war on Iraq, or another country, without the consent of the allies or the approval of Congress.
File last modified on Thursday, 13-AUG-2004 07:00 PM EST