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Germany's Cast Iron Chancellor

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Germany's cast iron chancellor

Schrِder is determined to keep out of any US war with Iraq

Jonathan Steele

Tuesday December 3, 2002

The Guardian

Pity Germany. Usually caricatured as a country with militarist instincts, for the last few months it has been in the dock on a different charge. The Bush administration accuses it of pacifism.

Ever since its chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, announced during his re-election campaign in August that he would not take part in any "adventure" in Iraq, Washington's propaganda machine has been in high gear. Spinners put out the word that its irresponsibility may have lost Germany any chance of getting a permanent seat on the UN security council. Schröder's government was cold-shouldered by senior US officials.

The Americans initially hoped Schröder's outburst was merely a ploy to get votes which a cynical chancellor would renounce under the pressure of American wrath once he was safely back in the saddle. But there has been no retreat. Schröder has gone on with his criticisms of US policy and at the recent Nato summit in Prague the Americans tried to corner him by making a big media issue out of whether superpower Bush would even shake the naughty boy's hand.

Far from being isolated, Schröder was the man who with French help led the resistance to Washington's plans for Nato. The alphabetical seating plan put the United Kingdom and the United States side by side at Prague, but Schröder and Chirac sat symbolically next to each other opposite Blair and Bush. Together they toned down the Anglo-American draft for a Nato statement on Iraq, preventing any mention of "readiness" for military action and turning it into nothing more than a repetition of support for the UN.

Schröder could not block the US from using long-standing American bases in Germany or deny it overflying rights for a war on Iraq. These are guaranteed by treaty and in the election campaign the chancellor never said he would reverse this. So his promise in Prague not to interfere with American freedom of movement, which he spelled out formally last week, was not a u-turn. His refusal to let Germany itself take part in a war remains firm.

The new iron in the chancellor's spine comes in part from the even stronger stand of his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. But Schröder now gives all the signs of being a man who is arming himself with a battery of arguments for a long struggle with Washington. In a jovial self-assured performance at his Prague press conference he talked of "Europeanising" decision-making on international issues and brushed aside American pressure on the EU to give Turkey a guarantee of future membership. If done, he said, it would be because it was in Europe's interest to encourage secular forces there. Washington's position was not part of the equation.

He talked of "asymmetrical" warfare, now that powerful states have been shown to be vulnerable to low-tech terrorism. It was wrong to put the new threats into the framework of Nato's old machinery. On the contrary, the alliance had to come up with a sophisticated threat assessment and then develop a range of counter-measures, including more aid for development and poverty reduction, rather than simply rely on new hardware. Military means were only one element in what needed to be a broader and more imaginative package.

Although Schröder denied seeing America's sudden new plans for a 21,000-person Nato reaction force as a measure aimed at undercutting the EU's slow effort to have its own such force, Schröder's actions show he shares French suspicions. His conditions for German participation effectively sabotage the US plan. Any decision to use the new Nato force would have to be unanimous, and no German troops could take part without a parliamentary vote.

Schröder's decision to turn US foreign policy into a domestic election issue certainly had an element of expediency. The Social Democrats' private polls in August foretold defeat as clearly as the public ones. Yet what was important about the chancellor's move was that it succeeded. It revealed powerful underlying support for more independence in German foreign policy. Sustained by strong pro-Americanism for the last two generations, Germans were waiting for leaders to recognise the world was different. They want "nationalism with a European face"; in other words for Germany to defy the US when necessary and bring its European partners to take a similar stance.

Having tested this new political chord in the election, Schröder continues to develop it. Chirac sees military prowess as a key element in his country's international reputation and has notions of great-power status which Germany does not share. But this divergence matters less than unity on the bigger issue. They are forcing the US into accepting that Nato will never take aggressive military action as an alliance. Bush can only count on "coalitions of the willing". Thanks to Schröder and Fischer there is also a "coalition of the unwilling".

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