German-American relations have been thrown into crisis by the way Germany's election campaign was conducted by its governing party. Other allies have had reservations about American policy on Iraq. None has chosen the road of confrontation.

The cause for this sudden deterioration is complex. Some ascribe the quite unexpected shift of German policy to electoral opportunism. But Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's motives are not the issue. For the anti-American campaign clearly appealed to a constituency large enough to transform Schroeder's expected defeat into victory. Hence a kind of anti-Americanism may have become a permanent temptation of German politics.

This is especially painful for those of us who actively nurtured what we consider one of the proudest achievements of American postwar foreign policy: the return of Germany to the community of nations as an equal, respected and indispensable member. It was a journey marked by the Berlin airlift; the Marshall Plan; support for Germany's membership in NATO and the European Community; close cooperation in two further Berlin crises; American support (overcoming initial doubts) for German reconciliation with the East; American leadership in negotiating a final agreement on access to Berlin; and, finally, unconditional American support for German unification despite the hesitations of other allies, not to speak of the Soviet Union. Germany's contribution was the courageous decision to postpone unification, when Stalin offered it in return for Germany's rejection of NATO, and its decision instead to tie its future to European unity and Atlantic partnership.

The forging of a common destiny did not prevent occasional disagreements regarding specific policies. But up to now they were based on differing interpretations of, and responses to, unchallenged common interests. This explains the shock when, without warning or consultation, an election issue was made of American policy on Iraq. German participation in a military conflict with Iraq was rejected and the use of German bases proscribed, even if action is backed by a U.N. vote and whatever the other members of the European Union or NATO might decide -- despite the fact that no request for a German military contribution had been made or was likely to be made. This dramatic gesture was proclaimed in behalf of a so-called German way, explicitly defined as being "made in Berlin," challenging the twin pillars of Germany's postwar foreign policy: the Atlantic alliance and European unity.

This was accompanied by sharp official criticism of a speech by Vice President Cheney and of the alleged unilateral tactics of President Bush. The comparison of President Bush's domestic methods to those of Hitler by a cabinet minister was an aberration, but it grew out of a mood that had been deliberately fostered. A leading official of the Social Democratic Party compared the American ambassador to the Soviet special representative to East Germany, Pyotr Abrasimov; others described American policies as Caesarean. And the tone deafness vis-a-vis American sensitivities continued after the election when the newly designated state secretary in the German Foreign Ministry, Klaus Scharioth, described the new American strategic doctrine released by the White House as reminiscent of the Brezhnev Doctrine.

The impact of this campaign on the German electorate is shown by the fact that Schroeder's opposition, the historically pro-American Christian Democratic Union, went reluctantly along with the refusal of military cooperation and of the use of NATO military bases located in Germany. This suggests that the causes of the existing rift go deeper than electoral opportunism, American unilateralism and disagreement over Iraq policy.

The end of the Cold War has removed the fear of a common danger. For four decades, German governments treated the American alliance as the key to German security and to the political legitimacy of the new Germany. Today there is no sense of overriding danger, and Germany rightly no longer feels the need to pay a price to vindicate its legitimacy. Thus the issue of Iraq has become a pretext for a reorientation of German foreign policy in a more national direction.

The generation that created the German-American relationship is passing from the scene. On the American side, its members came from the Eastern Establishment, leavened by some emigres. On the German side, the postwar leaders had decisively turned away from a past in which Germany had overreached, partly as a result of totalitarianism but even before that because of an inability to establish national priorities that related Germany's aims to its capabilities.

The new leadership groups that have emerged on both sides of the Atlantic have not shared the experience of the war and of postwar reconstruction. They are either not preoccupied with foreign dangers or, to the extent that they are, believe themselves capable of dealing with them unilaterally. The Atlantic Alliance, once the centerpiece of policymaking, now concentrates on expanding its membership and thus on extending its reach without redefining its purpose. In the United States, the political center of gravity has shifted to regions whose representatives have fewer personal connections with Europe and less experience with its challenges than their predecessors, who created the postwar structure. And they govern in a United States that enjoys unquestionable military supremacy and has reinterpreted its approach to alliances.

As the victim of 9/11 and as the dominant military power, America feels itself responsible for global security. But in Europe, the focus is on domestic politics rather than on international affairs. European leaders spend an enormous amount of their time on the technicalities of European unification -- an arcane subject for most American leaders. This emphasis on bureaucratic, constitutional and legalistic arrangements contrasts with a United States that emphasizes its exceptional character and the applicability of its institutions to the rest of the world.

Germany is challenged by these realities in an especially acute fashion. It achieved national unity later than any European country and acquired its present dimensions and structure only a little more than 10 years ago. It therefore has less of a tradition of global foreign policy than the other major countries of Western Europe. Its domestic problems are more severe. It is governed by a coalition whose leaders had their formative experience in the protest against American policy on Vietnam, even participating in some of its more violent phases. In the early post-World War II period, Germany's governing party, the SPD, advocated unity over NATO and overthrew one of its chancellors, Helmut Schmidt, because he was willing to place NATO missiles on German soil. And its coalition partner, the Greens, opposed all military ties to the West until it entered office. To be sure, farsighted leadership in both coalition parties enabled them to govern with programs sustaining Atlantic ties, if not with passion at least on the basis of realistic assessment. But it did leave a residue on the left wing of each governing party, which could be mobilized by appeals to traditional anti-Americanism.

This situation is compounded by the special psychological condition of the eastern part of Germany. East Germany was liberated as much by Western pressure as by the actions of its own internal resistance. And its economic and political reconstruction has taken place under West German aegis. As a result, the East German population takes less pride in economic accomplishments, is more conscious of lingering unemployment and is less tied to the Atlantic Alliance than the populations of, say, Poland, the Czech Republic or Hungary, which, also being more afraid of Russia, veer more toward the United States. East Germany went from Nazism to communism without any experience of democracy. Its population tends to view itself as victims of history and, to some extent, of Western globalism. It is not familiar with Western strategic or geopolitical views and seeks its security in an abstract moralism veering toward pacifism, which enables it to feel superior to its powerful ally.

Foreign policy expert Karsten Voigt, in charge of American relations in Germany's foreign office, summed up this new attitude: "We do what makes sense to us; we do nothing with whose substance we disagree." Foreign policy rarely permits such absolute distinctions, however. No country should be asked to act against its interests or its notions of common sense. But Germany, located in the center of the continent, cannot afford a foreign policy that makes no allowance for the views of other societies -- and especially of close allies. At the end of the German election campaign, the margin of victory may well have been supplied by a combination of pacifism, left and right nationalism, and an evocation of a specifically German way reminiscent of Wilhelmine Germany. For if Germany can affront the United States, reject U.N. views and act without consultations with the other nations of Europe in the name of a "German way" -- "made in Berlin," in the chancellor's words -- self-righteous isolation beckons for Germany and a return to pre-World War I conditions for Europe.

The experience of recent months has shaken the nations of Europe almost as much as the United States -- though for reasons of geographic proximity they are less ready to say so openly. The nations of Eastern Europe in need of finding a home in a united Europe reemphasize ties to America as the ultimate safety anchor. The nations of Western Europe are taking another look at the previous tendency to seek Europe's identity in distinction from the United States. There is therefore wide scope for a creative American diplomacy. This must include a serious commitment to the rebuilding of the relationship with Germany. Germany is too important to Europe and the Atlantic relationship to let policy be based on recrimination.

The issue is not to bridge differences over Iraq -- Germany should find its own approach with respect to this issue without American pressure or persuasion. Clearly some confidence has been lost. Still, the environment will produce enough situations in which both sides can test their ability to develop common approaches, and not only in the Middle East -- especially as Germany assumes the chairmanship of the U.N. Security Council in February. A sober, realistic approach on both sides is indicated. A major effort should be made to deal with the conditions from which the explosive mix of the German electoral period emerged. Both sides should take seriously the other's concern regarding unilateralism. They should try to answer together the basic issues of the direction of the Atlantic alliance, the relations of Europe and America, the rebuilding of a united Europe, and a definition of the German way that draws the appropriate lessons from history.

During the 20th century, the West tore itself apart over problems importantly revolving around Germany. The United States, its allies and the new German government have an obligation to dedicate themselves to making sure that history does not repeat itself.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is president of Kissinger Associates, an international consulting firm.

(c)2002 Tribune Media Services International