As Coordinator of German-American Cooperation, Karsten D. Voigt is the German government's point man in dealings with the Bush Administration. It hasn't been an easy job. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was an early, outspoken opponent of U.S. military action in Iraq, which enraged the Bush team and severely strained the transatlantic alliance. Lately tempers have cooled, but the relationship remains tricky.
Recently, Voigt spoke with BusinessWeek Frankfurt Bureau Chief Jack Ewing about what Germany expects if Bush is elected to a second term. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: President Bush has been sounding more conciliatory toward Europe lately. Do you expect a more multilateral approach if he wins a second term?
A:In the last months the Administration has been moving more in the direction of consulting with allies, a little bit more multilateral. Whether that has to do with Iraq or with criticism in the election campaign...we have to find out after the elections. Is this a positive change that's permanent or due to conditions of the last year?
But the same is true of Kerry. He promises more multilateralism. Bush also promised more multilateralism when he was running for President. Having lived through several election periods, my experience tells me you have to wait until after the elections.
Q: What else would you expect from a second Bush term?
A:If Bush is reelected, we hope the policy of free trade represented by [U.S. Trade Representative] Robert Zoellick will continue. In general you can expect from a Republican Administration that they will strive to go in the direction of an agreement [on trade]. That's the positive side.
Q: How about NATO, another institution that seems to have been neglected?
A:We have seen in certain periods NATO underused. This, at least rhetorically, has changed in the last months. The issue still remains to make NATO relevant. Everybody talks about it, but there's still a challenge to continue with reform of NATO.
Q; Will Bush make more use of the U.N.?
A:If it fits into their perceptions of American interests, yes. But one difference will be permanent. For us, because of our size and geopolitical situation, working with the U.N. is a must as well as a principle. For the U.S., it's an option. There will always be a difference in our perception of the meaning of multilateralism. We're of a different size and importance.
Q: Do you see a risk that the Administration will take military action against other countries, such as Iran or Syria?
A:I think the experience in Iraq is limiting that temptation, which, by the way, has positive and negative implications. There may be cases [where] we want the U.S. to act. You never know whether there will be other crises such as there were in Yugoslavia or Africa where they [the Americans] are reluctant to do anything and where some Europeans might want them to act.
The Bush Administration is not likely to interfere when they see a humanitarian situation. They act when they think national interests are at stake.
Q: How about another area of dispute, namely global warming?
A:I don't see the Administration view changing, and I don't see our view changing.
Q: Does that mean stalemate?
Q: Will Europe take a more independent approach in dealing with Israel and the Palestinians?
A:No. You can't have impact in the Middle East without the U.S. The U.S. and Europe should work together even if they disagree. They should work together even if they can't guarantee success. Even if we differ, we should strive for cooperation.
The American policy is perceived as being more pro-Israel. Europe is perceived as being more pro-Palestine [though Germany leans more toward Israel than France]. As long as there are these different perceptions of the U.S. and Europe, as long as they work together, they can add value.
Q: Has the Bush Administration learned anything in the last four years?
A:I think we also have to learn. The British and the French always had a global view. For us, it's something we had to learn. The U.S. is still in a learning phase about its new role after the end of the Cold War. They were defined by a perception of themselves that they could reshape the world, that after 9/11 they could act alone to defend themselves on a global scale. They perceived themselves to be more threatened but also more capable.
I think they're learning that though they're the strongest country, they need allies, that they may need to win allies over and in some cases even allow their policy to be shaped. We're also learning that our foreign policy cannot always be defined by morality but also by realities.
Q: How does the German government interpret the U.S. decision to reduce troops in Germany? Is this punishment for the German position on Iraq, or is it a necessary realignment of troops?
A:We definitely do not see this as a punishment. The decision to reduce and reorganize troops in Germany is part of a larger initiative to restructure U.S. forces at the same time within the U.S. and abroad.
Q: There's German press speculation that Schröder would secretly prefer to see Bush reelected so he can present himself as the peacemaker.
A:If you asked the electorate, the answer would be very clear who they would prefer. But we try to avoid being part of the election campaign. We don't want America to interfere in our elections. We have to work with everybody.