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Schröder is juggling France and America

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  • Schröder is juggling France and America

    PARIS Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany is going to the United States this week for an important meeting, but it is not with President George W. Bush. The chancellor will be in New York having dinner with Sanford Weill, the chairman of Citigroup, and other American investment leaders. The goal is to look comfortable in the halls of American power and ambition. But this presents a conundrum for the German chancellor.

    The game plan in terms of Europe also requires suggesting a certain distance from the Americans. Germany and its Continental partner, France, are working to leverage the European Union's power to a level where, in the name of Europe, the Germans and French can look into American eyes from a perch less precarious than last winter's stack of phone books piled on chairs.

    For Schröder, the problem is many-sided. A majority of the 25 countries in the enlarged European Union, and especially the new members from the old Soviet bloc, see little to inspire allegiance to, or emulation of, France and Germany, a self-appointed leadership pair that can guarantee neither the Continent's economic growth nor its security.

    The French president, Jacques Chirac, at least, is consistent with the long course of his country's foreign policy inclination to challenge American leadership. Schröder, by contrast, won election in 1998 on a promise of maintaining Helmut Kohl's 16 years of serene equidistance between France and the United States while putting things right domestically.

    Five years on, Schröder has become the precedent-breaking chancellor who turned Germany away from the United States in favor of France in the run-up to the war with Iraq. Over the same period, Schröder's pledge to transform the ossified German economy imploded, undermining Germany's influence worldwide (and its traditional upper hand in economic relations with France). And Schröder is going into 2004 with the same 10.5 percent German unemployment rate he pledged to eradicate when he defeated Kohl.

    So, does this amount to a scary drift in German foreign and domestic policy, magnified and complicated by a decade of national economic somnolence?

    The answer, in any case, does not merit an automatically happy or stable view of Germany's circumstances. And such wariness is surely what Schröder wants to dispel when he is in New York to shore up the German-American relationship. (Bush will be on a state visit to Britain.)

    However warm his tone, Schröder is unlikely to say the words that would disinfect the wound that has opened in relations with the United States since Germany tried, behind France's lead, to impede U.S. policy on Iraq a year ago.

    The issue is no longer narrowly Iraq, or Schröder's rejection of the Bush administration's line on the war or its aftermath. Rather it is Germany's ambiguity about France's vision of Europe as a counterweight or a rival to the United States - a concept that top French officials have advanced publicly in Moscow and Beijing.

    The French doctrine focuses on the idea of "multipolarity," the notion that today's world, with a dominant United States, is certain to evolve into one of competing poles. Schröder's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, who will be in Washington early in the week, has said Germany does not want the United States as a rival. But the chancellor, whose office increasingly dominates foreign policy, has never distanced himself specifically from multipolarity ā la Franįaise.

    In the same ambiguous manner, the Germans have said that "for the time being" they are against the creation of a separate European Union military planning headquarters outside NATO, a French-inspired plan that American officials describe as the greatest current threat to the alliance's sustainability.

    In recent weeks, strong voices in Germany have told Schröder he made a serious mistake in allowing the perception to develop that he had turned the country into France's junior partner. Their concern is not primarily the United States, but Germany's place in an expanded European Union - where most members place their security loyalties with the Americans. These countries powerfully resent Germany and France for asserting their unelected leadership role in Europe.

    They also suspect that in the long term Germany's desires for European primacy, and French interests in running Europe behind the dray horse of Germany's economy, are far from identical.

    Schröder, as a tactician, may think he can improve relations with "New Europe" and please the Americans by looking more comfortable in New York than Jacques Chirac might. But five years in office have not brought clarity about the chancellor's convictions.

    When he lost to Schröder, Kohl called his successor a man consistently positioned on the wrong side of history. Yet Schröder has never paid with lost votes for the positions Kohl considered most egregious. Before becoming chancellor, Schröder voted against German reunification, called for a cease-fire during the first Gulf war while Iraqi troops were still in Kuwait, backed indefinite postponement of the introduction of the euro, and argued, in opposing U.S. nuclear arms in Europe in the early 1980's, that Leonid Brezhnev seemed more intent on peace than the American presidents.

    In comparison with foreign policy, Schröder is likely to be more forthcoming about the state of the German economy when he speaks at a dinner Thursday - an event held by the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies to honor Weill.

    In trying to get Wall Street to think of Germany as a less sclerotic place to invest, Schröder's most upbeat story involves a series of polls of German business leaders signaling their belief that the economy is about to improve. The chancellor has also pushed tax cuts and some liberalization of labor market regulations to the edge of passage.

    But hard statistics contradict some of the good cheer. Factory production and exports to the United States fell in August. When the German Finance Ministry looked at its shortfall in tax revenues against its budget last month, it listed the figure as E12.5 billion. Two weeks later, the number was E19.1 billion. For the third year running, the country stands in open defiance of the European Union's deficit targets - a plan for keeping the Union's most financially challenged members in line that Germany itself conceived in an almost forgotten past of exemplary economic performance and close partnership with the United States.

    However considerable the problems, Schröder seems to consider this a good time to persuade some American friends to think hopefully and well of Germany again. Whatever his convictions, the tactics, as usual for Schröder, look smooth and confident.