The United Nations weapons inspectors are reporting their findings on Iraq. George W. Bush is editing his State of the Union address. But all of Germany is still huffing and puffing about a statement made a week ago: Donald Rumsfeld called Germany, along with France, "old Europe".
The insult is sticking for the same reason that many other insults tend to stick: it contains truth. The US defence secretary was right. After all, Mr Bush's foreign policy, after a bit of evolution, could now be summed up as "bring on the new", or even "provoke the new, or perish". Germany's motto, by contrast, is "preserve the old" or "prevent repeats of old mistakes".
Consider, for a start, the context that generated Mr Rumsfeld's remark. The US looks at the Middle East with hope. It believes that it can, by means of tough pressure and, if necessary, sustained military action, improve the prospects of liberty, prosperity and stability in the Gulf region.
Certainly, this hope is partly born of desperation: the US fears that a Middle East that remains undemocratic and unfree will continue to terrorise others. Still, the hope is also a genuinely moral one, in the tradition of former presidents Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. Kennedy said in his 1961 inaugural address that America would "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe" to secure liberty.
The paradigm for hopeful change that looms in the collective brain of the current administration is, as it happens, Germany. The most important foreign policy work done by Condoleezza Rice, the US national security adviser, before she was appointed to her current job was helping with the unification of Germany as a junior National Security Council official. This administration looks at unified Berlin. It takes in the creamy pillars of the restored Brandenburg Gate, the no-longer "dead" underground railway stops and the fact that Potsdam's Glienicke crossover is now a bridge like any other. And it interprets these as proof that action leads to progress.
It is therefore incomprehensible to the Bush team that Germany, of all places, would fail to see the potential for Middle East change now. The sequence of aggressive posturing by Ronald Reagan, followed by relenting on the part of Mikhail Gorbachev, seems to this administration proof that hardnosed pressure and bellicose words can work.
This history also explains Bush administration rage towards Germany. After all, the US occupation of - and subsequent presence in - Germany was possibly the most pleasant in the bloody history of the world. And the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush disproved the leftwing scepticism of the 1980s when it supported unification in 1989 and 1990. France, as Walter Russell Mead, the historian, points out, expressed qualms, along with the Soviet Union and Mrs Thatcher. Yet it is Jacques Chirac, and not Mr Bush, whom Gerhard Schroder is these days embracing. What ingrates!
The German international outlook is close to the opposite. Germans these days are every bit as pessimistic as the stereotype has it. An annual poll conducted by the Allensbach Institut fur Demoskopie asks Germans whether they see the coming year with hope, fear or scepticism. In late 2002, 31 per cent of those polled answered "hope", a level so low that only two other points have matched it: 1950, the year that the Korean war was escalating to include China, and 1973, when the Middle East was also the focus of global concern.
Germans are so fearful that they believe the most important work of governments is to prevent a repeat of the past, or to block intervention in dangerous regions. It is no accident that Messrs Schroder and Chirac chose a Franco-German anniversary event to thumb their nose at the Bush administration. The appropriate work of Europe, they seemed to be saying, was to correct the past. Of course, other factors are at work here. One is that the voters from Germany's eastern states, many of whom supported Mr Schroder in last year's elections, tend to believe that for Berlin to follow Washington loyally would be to serve as satellite in the same way that the East Berlin regime served Moscow in its day. (The same people also believe, out of the same sort of weakness, that Tony Blair must indeed be a "lapdog".)
There is also, as Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit, says, the disappearance of the Soviet Union to reckon with. In the old days, he says, "we had bipolarity and you tended to seek the protection of your superpower. But now there is only one superpower and so Germany doesn't feel that old, strategic dependence on the US any more".
This view, however, is shortsighted. However much a world dominated by America is a problem, it is much less of one than a world where rogue states deploy, and not merely hoard, weapons of mass destruction. The US is right: Saddam Hussein, not Mr Bush, is the issue here. Yet Berlin and Paris continue to treat Mr Hussein as a figment of US imagination, to be vanquished not by military means but by peace oaths and, perhaps, time for Uncle Sam on a psychiatrist's couch. How very old Europe of them.
Amity Shlaes is on leave from the Financial Times as a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
© Copyright 2003 Financial Times
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