Sitting in the great hall of the Bayerische Hof during the recent Munich Security Conference, I found myself drifting back a decade to February of 2003 and the time I witnessed the confrontation between Donald Rumsfeld and Joschka Fischer play out. “I am sorry but I am not convinced” became a legendary line which punctured the conference atmosphere like a pin bursting a balloon. Fischer’s challenge to Rumsfeld’s assessment of WMDs in Iraq was to echo throughout the rest of the year as it gradually became evident that the intelligence reports had been wrong. The agony of Iraq’s civil war proceeded to unfold during the following decade. While Germany remained committed to its presence in Afghanistan, the impact of the Iraq war and its aftermath continued in the loss of confidence in policies forged in Washington.

That clash between Berlin and Washington in 2003 seems to have faded, and Condoleezza Rice’s depiction of the German-American relationship as having been poisoned over Iraq appears forgotten. Or is it?

The fact that the main argument for war against Saddam’s Iraq was revealed to be incorrect has certainly undermined both the credibility of U.S. intelligence agencies and the reputation of the Bush administration. Most Germans did not like President Bush before the Iraq war and that only worsened during his term in office. Despite Chancellor Merkel’s efforts to bridge the divide that marked relations between Bush and Gerhard Schroeder, the image of the U.S. was tarnished in Germany-that is, until Barack 0bama appeared to restore the image of American that Germans were searching for.

Yet, even as that phase began in 2008, still another development emerged to once again undermine the trust in the U.S.—the economic implosions which launched the worst recession in decades. Even though the problems that began in the U.S. infected European economies that wound up in a mess of their own making, perceptions of the U.S. as a source of unbridled greed underlined for many Germans the fact that their social market economic model appeared a much better response to follow than American turbo-capitalism.

And where are we today? A recent public opinion survey in Germany suggests that there is a rising wave of negative attitudes toward the U.S. Yet as the exchanges in our blog reflect, there is a recognition that negative perceptions toward the U.S. are part of a very long and sometimes volatile relationship with Germany—just as the reversed view of Americans toward Germany have been subjected to the course of history. Eight decades ago, as the Nazis seized power in Berlin, attitudes toward Germany would deteriorate amidst the fires of war and the horror of the Holocaust-only to emerge again in a very different light within the framework of the Cold War decades and the eventual unification of Germany. Attitudinal change is driven by the past as well as the present.

The references used to define relations between countries are forged by major milestones, be they wars or alliances, shared challenges or conflicts. They also emerge from domestic debates about national interests, or even national identities. In the case of Germany, the enormous influence, and indeed power, of the United States has been a source of respect and at times resentment, particularly during the Cold War era in which West Germans recognized their existential dependence on the U.S. Following unification, the equation of dependence was altered, as was the global arena in which Germany emerged as a much stronger actor in Europe and on the world stage. Germany became less an object of U.S. foreign policy-as the front line of the Cold War—and more a subject with whom the U.S. discussed challenges it needed to face elsewhere.

Germans had to adjust to that changed view-not an easy process either then or in today’s atmosphere. But this transformation of Germany did involve changed attitudes toward the U.S. as well. While the Germans saw themselves as allies in the fight against terrorism after 9-11, they did not see the same picture in Iraq. That caused great resentment in the Bush administration, which felt as though Germany owed the U.S. a debt after four decades of American protection from the Soviets. But that reference was beginning to lose traction among Germans who felt that they could remain respectful while rejecting a U.S. policy choice. As we saw in 2003, that was not going to be an easy path.

That same trend became visible as the U.S. and Germany faced the economic crisis after 2008. Germany’s history, its disposition, and indeed its psyche were not in sync with the policy response to the crisis in Washington. Nor, it should be added, was Germany in sync with many of its European neighbors. But just as Chancellor Schroeder had said no to President Bush when it came to Iraq, Chancellor Merkel said no to President Obama when it came to making choices about how to meet the threats of economic disaster. Indeed, the critique of the U.S. was in part connected with the critique of American policies and practices, be they regarding societal inequities or environmental behavior. Germans saw themselves in better shape than Americans-and they were not shy about expressing their views.

Some chose to refer to this as a normalization of relations between two important, and indeed influential, countries which had been through a unique period of history after World War II and were now adjusting to significant changes in how they relied on each other. This same scenario was also happening in Europe, with Germany in particular having to adjust to changing expectations regarding its role in the European Union.

On neither side of the Atlantic has this been an easy process. Neither Germany nor the U.S. can ignore the legacies of the past as they face challenges and choices today. And it is equally evident that both countries share an interdependence which can be at once both irritating and illuminating. As in a marriage, one has to accept the whole relationship that is made up of two sides bringing all they are and all they have been to a partnership of equals. There will be different memories, narratives, and perhaps some common lessons learned occasionally.

Yet that is exactly the process that generates the set of questions worth asking now. What have we learned during the past very turbulent decade? What expectations can we—and should we—have from one another? Do we see the same set of choices when we look at critical challenges like Iran, Russia, or climate change? Do we evaluate the consequences of policies in the same way or draw similar conclusions from them? How are we going to see the next phase of engagement in Afghanistan after the troops are pulled out? Is Mali the next Afghanistan? If Syria is descending into a long term civil war, what choices do we make in avoiding a fate like Lebanon suffered? What are the options for Europe forging its own defense capability in the face of changing U.S. priorities in the Pacific? And are we on the same page in forging a framework to manage a global marketplace capable of avoiding the meltdown we have just experienced? Surely the upcoming negotiations over a transatlantic trade and investment partnership will be an opportunity to find out.

The answers to these questions, among many others, are surely a mixed picture based on specific situations, as well as a changing arena of interests and concerns. But embedded in them is also this fundamental question: do we understand how we both approach the decision-making processes which are the filters of our discussions and debates?

It is this last question which relates back to the confrontation that took place between Fischer and Rumsfeld ten years ago. As much as we interact across borders and boundaries of all kinds in this very busy and active German-American network which I have experienced now for more than forty years,  I often find myself surprised by what we don’t know about each other. That is not necessarily a bad thing—so long as we admit it—and keep wanting to know more.

  • R.G. Livingston

    Unmentioned is the support of the United States for German unification in 1989 and 1990. The Soviet Union, Britain and France all would have tried to block unification had it not been for Washington’s support of it. Germany repaid the U.S. by its large financial contribution to the first Iraq war,also unmentioned.