Fraying friendships

Misunderstanding fuels German anti-Americanism

October 04, 2002|By Peter Ross Range

BERLIN -- The outbreak of anti-Americanism -- or, more properly, anti-Bushism -- in the German election campaign bears a salutary lesson for the Bush administration.

No matter who started this playground brawl -- Gerhard Schroeder with his adamant anti-war-in-Iraq stance, or Vice President Dick Cheney with his damn-the-inspectors speech in August -- important relations between major countries can clearly be damaged when neither pays enough attention to the other's interests and concerns.

Yes, Chancellor Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer shamelessly played the Iraq card in their campaigns, and it probably made the difference in their victory. Yes, there was a coded anti-Americanism in their populist message, though it in no way went as far as German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin's stumblebum comparison of President Bush's political tactics to those of Adolf Hitler.

But it's also true that a long list of Bush administration decisions -- from not supporting the Kyoto treaty or the International Criminal Court to the imposition of steel tariffs -- laid the groundwork for a high degree of skepticism toward the president's increasingly insistent plans to invade Iraq.

By the time of the German election, bad will toward President Bush was so rampant in the German public that tapping into it on the Iraq issue was a no-brainer for Mr. Schroeder. Combined with historic German pacifism ("To us, war means Dresden," a German politician told me), anti-Bushism was a powerful force that saved Mr. Schroeder's foundering campaign, especially in the formerly Communist eastern Germany.

The question is whether this reveals a previously unrecognized streak of anti-Americanism in Germany. And the answer is a cautious maybe.

At its root lies a fundamental mistrust of American hegemonism.

While there are still official and unofficial expressions of thanks to the United States for its role in protecting and rebuilding Germany for 40 years -- scores of bouquets were laid in front of the U.S. Embassy in Berlin this Sept. 11 -- a broad majority of German popular and elite opinion today sees America as recklessly using, or threatening to use, its unchallenged power anywhere in the world.

Trained for a half-century to channel all their own (possibly scary) international ideas into multilateral institutions, they are much discomfited when they see their best friend going a unilateral route.

Clearly, much of Mr. Bush's problem in Germany is, well, George W. Bush. Before the election, I asked a number of Germans in the political class how they would feel if the president were named Clinton or Gore, if he had signed Kyoto, had supported the ICC and had not introduced steel tariffs -- but still had the same Iraq policy as Mr. Bush. Would they feel differently about Iraq? Almost all said they would. Their problem, then, is as much the messenger as the message.

Unscientific though it is, that canvass bears the simple lesson that you can't go around offending everyone else on the playground and then expect them to support you when the really tough choices come. The linkage between signing Kyoto and battling Saddam Hussein may seem stretched to Americans, but it's not to the Germans.

Germans are America's biggest fans in Europe. A significant portion of their leaders have strong personal ties to the United States -- Mr. Schroeder's wife once lived in New York -- and send their children to our colleges. But at the same time, one hears words like inferiority complex, fear of dominance and the complaint of not being consulted in matters of war and peace.

Yet the lack-of-consultation argument cuts both ways. Throughout the summer, as a robust debate over Iraq policy emerged in the United States, Germany slept. Its policy community barely discussed the issue, to the point the American director of the Aspen Institute Berlin wrote an opinion piece admonishing Germans to get involved. But their debate never really happened, says one German journalist, partly because much of the country's policy discussion is stifled by political correctness.

"You could never publish an op-ed piece asking whether Iraq might become a democracy, or oil prices might go down, two years after a war in Iraq," he said.

Anti-Americanism may have raised its ugly head in this election, the closest in German history. Fortunately, the chattering class has been outraged by it, and is beating the drums against it.

A key question is whether it will also use the occasion to broaden debate and communicate to a wider public just how deeply America changed after 9/11. The way Germans felt after Dresden is, in a qualitative if not quantitative way, how Americans feel after 9/11.

Peter Ross Range, a former Time correspondent in Germany, is editor of Blueprint, the policy journal of the Democratic Leadership Council in Washington. A longer version of this article appears at

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