Germany’s View (2/28)     Print Email

By Michael Mosettig, Former Foreign Editor, PBS News Hour

For German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his major public appearance in Washington was billed to be an uplifting speech on engaging the next generation in trans-Atlantic solidarity. But thanks to one new crisis and a lingering one, much of the minister's Washington visit became an exercise in walking on eggs.


Steinmeier drew a standing room only crowd at Washington's Brookings Institution, including not only the usual graying policy wonks but a cluster of young Europeans studying in the city's universities and who formed an appropriate backdrop for his prepared text delivered in English. Now in his second tour as foreign minister, Steinmeier came across as a friendly politician comfortable in Washington and expressing delight that since his first visit 35 years ago, he was delighted to find bars, here as in Berlin, where you could always engage someone in a political discussion.

Speaking to and of the age cohort of his 17-year-old daughter, the minister said, "For the generation of tomorrow the role of trans-Atlantic relations is not as self-evident as it was for my generation. This should not surprise us."

Without making the link to disaffected youth explicit, Steinmeier was blunt about the distrust sown in the German public by revelations of U.S. National Security Agency eavesdropping on communications of that country's leaders and citizens alike.

The revelations "tested the trust of America's friends and that has gotten in the way of all the other tasks we have," the minister said.

At Brookings and after his meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, Steinmeier pretty much confirmed that the Berlin government has abandoned its hopes of working out a no-spying treaty or arrangement with Washington. Instead, he suggested a three-level dialogue (government, technical experts and representatives of civil society) to try to find the right balance between security, liberty and privacy.

But even should such a profound dialogue take place, he added during the question and answer session in German with sequential translation. , "I don't believe everything will be fine. I am not that naive. But we each will know where the other side stands."

On a routine visit by a key allied foreign minister, that controversial topic would have been enough to draw a crowd. But the day's volatile news bulletins from Ukraine, cited in the introductory remarks by Brookings president former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, certainly added an element of drama.

But the unsettled situation, potentially pitting the United States and EU against Russia, buttressed diplomatic caution for a minister whose country is deeply engaged in Russia even as Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian president Vladimir Putin carry on a wary and sometimes suspicious relationship.

The Ukrainian upheaval, Steinmeier said, is another example of a situation in which neither the EU nor the United States can take on the burden alone. While emphasizing caution and the need to keep lines of communication open with Moscow and certainly not the moment to be deciding if Ukraine should be in the East or West, the minister said the rapidly developing events in Crimea make it unclear whether differences can be bridged.

Interestingly, where Steinmeier was most blunt was on a topic that does not draw big headlines in Washington -- Britain's future role in the EU. A day after Chancellor Merkel was lavishly received in London, Steinmeier made clear that his government was in no mood for a major re-write of European treaties merely to help Prime Minister Cameron satisfy anti-European elements in his Conservative party ahead of a possible referendum on continued UK membership.

While open to possible changes in subsidiarity and the division of some responsibilities between national governments and Brussels, the minister emphasized that Germany was committed  to more, not less integration. Then he added, "Where we differ from our British friends is whether to roll back on what we have achieved (on European integration)."