Germany's New Outlook

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, October 16, 2005

Angela Merkel's new coalition government in Germany provides a sudden silver lining for the dark clouds that have descended over the Bush presidency. It will now be easier for Washington to work with Berlin and the European Union.

That change could also help reduce the poisonous anti-American sentiments that pervade international politics. Those sentiments seemed to surface in this year's Nobel peace and literature prizes, which served to remind President Bush of his international unpopularity.

The German silver lining is fragile: Merkel must still gain parliamentary approval for her Cabinet. And the success of U.S. foreign policy over the next three years lies to a great extent with other nations and politicians, rather than with new American initiatives.

Bush, his political team and his military establishment are stretched to their limits by a blinding variety of challenges and disasters. As a result, the president must increasingly depend on opportunities created by others -- the Iraqi people voting on a constitution and a new government, the Europeans negotiating to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Merkel forming a "grand coalition" of her conservative forces and the Social Democrats they narrowly beat in the Sept. 18 elections.

The decision last week by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to end his bitter rear-guard campaign to stay in office helps. True to form, Schroeder peppered his withdrawal statement with castigation of Bush and American values, his favorite targets from the stump in two election campaigns.

But the Social Democrats then named Frank-Walter Steinmeier as their choice for foreign minister, rather than a party heavyweight. This confirms that Merkel's friendlier attitude toward Washington will set the new transatlantic tone. Steinmeier, an able technocrat who was Schroeder's highly efficient chief of staff, plays no significant domestic political role in Germany.

Schroeder's departure also means that Russian President Vladimir Putin has lost his closest ally and most voluble apologist in the West.

"The grand coalition should work out to be the best solution for Germany," Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said in our conversation in Washington last week. "Germany will remain close to Russia but will no longer depend on the very personalized symbols of Schroeder's politics. Germany under Merkel will work to establish the broad framework for a European Union policy toward Russia."

Merkel will make no abrupt changes on Iraq, Kwasniewski predicted. The Polish leader committed troops to the multinational force in Iraq and hopes his successor will keep them there after Kwasniewski leaves office in December. "You have elections and a new government in Iraq after December, and there will be a chance for new steps, perhaps a new United Nations resolution and a new international presence in Iraq," he said. "That is when a Germany that is more open to arguments from the United States could be helpful."

It is important, Kwasniewski continued, that Merkel has personally experienced the transformation of totalitarianism into democracy. Raised in communist East Germany, she tenaciously made her way to the top of the Christian Democratic Union after Germany's reunification.

"She understands the driving force of our times, the move to democracy, because she has lived it," said Kwasniewski, whose career traces the same arc. His successful mediation of the Ukraine crisis last December, as Poland's neighbor teetered on the edge of great bloodshed, has received too little international recognition.

Which brings me back to this year's Nobel Peace Prize. Kwasniewski would have been a plausible candidate, if less compelling for me than the indefatigable Martti Ahtisaari of Finland, who crowned earlier battlefield mediations in Serbia and elsewhere with an accord to halt the war in Indonesia's Aceh province.

The Norwegian prize jury rushed past Ahtisaari and the Polish president to focus instead on Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency. That choice was also a snub of the far more effective work in disarmament accomplished by Rolf Ekeus, the U.N. inspector who did the heavy lifting in policing and destroying Iraq's programs for weapons of mass destruction after 1991.

But these three Europeans are not in ElBaradei's class as self-promoters. Nor are they fashionably and vocally anti-American, as is playwright Harold Pinter, this year's Nobel winner in literature. Pinter accomplished his greatest work -- and great it was -- decades ago. But he has been passed over repeatedly ever since.

His writing today is narrow, shrill and bitterly political. To choose Pinter this year, rather than Philip Roth or Turkey's Orhan Pamuk, two novelists who are at the height of their narrative powers, sounds like an ephemeral political statement rather than a lasting judgment about creativity. If so, the jury embarrasses only itself with the suspect timing of this particular choice.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company