Smiles on the Rhine

On February 23, a day after addressing America’s allies in Brussels, President George W. Bush will meet German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the old city of Mainz on the Rhine. After the falling-out over Bush’s Iraq adventure, the two countries – so central to the transatlantic relationship in the past – are once again on speaking terms.

But, however welcome the return to cordiality may be, it is no more than that. If Bush and Schroeder are now showing the world how well they get along together, it is not because they are off to a new start, but because it suits their tactical interests. Had the American people chosen John F. Kerry over George W. Bush last November, the reunion would be seen by both sides as a new beginning, resonant with personal warmth. But both continue to doubt that past substantive divisions can really be overcome.

Thus, the meeting in Mainz will be one of those diplomatic courtesy calls that gloss over important bilateral differences. There will be no meeting of minds between Bush and Schroeder, because, on most key issues, their minds hold opposite views.

Consider what is potentially the most contentious issue, how to cope with Iran’s nuclear program. Germany has been determined, together with France and Britain, to get Iran to stop uranium enrichment through incentives and negotiation. While the US has now explicitly welcomed the European initiative, it remains openly skeptical and unwilling to join, thus weakening the chances of success. Failure would lead America to seek the UN Security Council’s formal condemnation of Iran, coupled with sanctions.