A gateway leading nowhere: Jonathan Eyal questions the political rationale behind America's new special relationship

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THE choreography could hardly have been better: the beginning of the lovefest between President Clinton and Chancellor Kohl devoted to enhancing Germany's world role coincided precisely with the decision of Germany's constitutional court finally to remove the legal obstacles to the involvement of German troops in overseas operations. Nobody fluffed the punchlines, everyone embraced at the right moment and even the two spouses, Hannelore and Hillary, marched in unison. Yet, when the razzmatazz dies down, both the Americans and the Germans are likely to discover that their mutual admiration raises more questions about Europe's future than it can answer.

The diplomatic flannel is easily disposed of. Germany and the US now have a 'special relationship', we are led to believe, which possibly supplants the traditionally close links between Britain and America. In reality, every state has a 'special' relationship with a great power; the concept is no more profound than the Most Favoured Nation trading status which, while sounding grand, is inserted into almost every international treaty. Nor were the speeches that Clinton delivered

in Germany particularly enlightening - every homily from the current administration has been billed as unique, only to sink without trace at once.

Every American president who visits Berlin is bound to be compared to John F Kennedy. The comparison has become one of diplomacy's biggest cliches and Clinton's spin doctors should have avoided it at all costs. Unfortunately they did not, and the result is just a painful embarrassment. There is always something ridiculous about politicians who remind us tirelessly that the Cold War is over, but who always seem to need the worn-out props of that old ideological confrontation, including the Brandenburg Gate, to persuade us they are in earnest. By positively seeking to imitate Kennedy, Clinton has shown simply that he, like most Europeans, can talk about the future only with the language of the past.

We are also told that Helmut and Bill now enjoy a close personal relationship. Yet, when American officials are asked to specify what this entails, they invariably dwell on culinary matters: the two leaders enjoy eating in large quantities, and preferably together. But if the future of Europe depends on some transatlantic gobblefest, we are all (with the exception of some posh restaurateurs) in big trouble.

In fact, America's determination to forge a special relationship with Germany pre-dates Clinton. Since it has its basis in genuine interests, it will also outlive the present leaders' eating habits. But there is still a question about whether an American-German axis can be productive. The signs are that both sides are likely to be disappointed.

Washington's heightened interest in Germany started with President Bush, and derived from the fairly humdrum observation that Germany is the biggest continental power, the bedrock for any meaningful European structure.

True, both Britain and France remain important. But Britain has proved better at opposing European projects than pursuing a positive continental agenda, while France seems to enjoy baiting the Americans at every opportunity. Germany had neither of these handicaps: for Bonn, 'Europe' was a vocation and good relations with Washington an article of faith. These calculations led President Bush to become the first important Western leader to support German unification. His masterly conduct during that period earned America a favourable image throughout Germany.

While every European leader displayed reservations about a Greater Germany, US presidents seemed to have none; while many Europeans regard Germans as a disease rather than a nation, the Americans urged greater German involvement in world affairs and even a German seat on the UN Security Council. The real state of US-German relations is less clear- cut than this, however.

Chancellor Kohl continues to confuse the attitude of foreign leaders to Germany with the mood of their nations. Baroness Thatcher's very public doubts about Germany are not representative of the British as a whole who, apart from some buffoons, are remarkably relaxed about Germany. Conversely, President Mitterrand's routine statements of affection for Germany are not shared by the French political class, which remains privately obsessed with pouring concrete on the German giant as quickly as possible.

A similar ambiguity can be observed with the US: Clinton's affection for Kohl is skin-deep. Most of the articles about Germany in the American press regularly portray the country as rife with neo- Nazis and racist violence, and the way Americans approach European problems, including the war in Yugoslavia, is through the haunting images of the Holocaust. Yet again, the attitudes of the leaders are confused with the feelings of the nations.

Nor was it Clinton's idea that Germany should be emboldened to assume bigger responsibilities in international affairs. All European leaders have realised that a Germany languishing in the heart of the Continent like a beached whale, economically powerful but unable to have its say, would be a danger. The problem is not with the idea of this policy, but with applying it. The assumption that seems to underlie Clinton's current policy is that only a united Europe will be able to share America's global burden, and that only an assertive Germany can make this happen. If this is the American assumption, however, the entire US-German alliance is based on fundamental misconceptions.

Paradoxically, the Americans now believe the rhetoric that some Europeans used to use: they really seem to think that the only thing standing in the way of a united Europe is a lack of political will. But nothing is further from the truth. European unity cannot be put back on track by one or two visionary leaders; the concept requires rethinking at every level. Kohl's dedication and expertise is undoubted, but he belongs to that generation of politicians who believe that the EU must be imposed from above in order to save the Germans from themselves.

As long as the German Chancellor - any German Chancellor - continues to behave as though the Germans are a nation on probation, a country that still has to prove itself, no amount of push from Washington will make much difference. And while Kohl may be purring at Clinton's public professions of love, he knows that these only complicate his relations with France and Britain and the delicate political debate within Germany. Germany's attempts to push the European Union unilaterally into policies of its choice - the recognition of Yugoslav republics, air strikes in the Balkans or the speedy completion of the Gatt accords - invariably provoked resentment from all its allies. The Germans may have the power to decide matters, but they are also paralysed by a sense of guilt about using it.

In fairness, Washington has taken steps to remove obstacles to the forging of a European identity. It no longer regards a European defence structure as incompatible with Nato, or the EU as a menace to America's superpower status. But as long as EU member states do not have compelling joint interests they cannot have a meaningful foreign and security policy. Kohl likes to talk about the need for joint action by Europe overseas. But last week, when he entertained Li Peng, China's prime minister, no German official raised Britain's dispute with Peking over Hong Kong. Joint policy as long as it does not cost me a pfennig is the prevailing message.

Everyone has welcomed the decision of the German constitutional court, authorising the use of the country's troops overseas. But Clinton will be greatly mistaken if he thinks that this will be translated automatically into a new German vitality abroad. The dispute about the deployment of German forces outside its borders was a political fight conducted through the judicial process, not an academic discussion about the interpretation of a particular constitutional article. And it is far from over: Britain and France are likely to be better military partners for the US for many years, despite their diminishing resources. The British and the French both have centuries of experience of sending people to places they cannot even pronounce; those Germans who still have such experience have no interest in being reminded of it now.

And, finally, Germany's strategic interests are not necessarily the same as America's. The unified Europe that America wants will ultimately require a definition of the Continent's frontiers. It is very doubtful that this Europe could include Russia, as the US hopes. Differentiating between the former Communist states is a necessity in Europe; for the US, however, such differentiation is viewed as a potential disaster. To be sure, both the Germans and the Americans talk about 'deeper and wider' Continental structures. But nobody has yet explained how this will happen - for a simple reason: it cannot be done. Policy towards Russia contains the seeds of the biggest transatlantic rift. And if it comes, Germany is likely to opt for Europe, regardless of how many meals Clinton and Kohl have gulped together.

The 'new' US-German axis is neither new, nor very profound. Ultimately, it remains an expression of aspiration, rather than reality. And it is being constructed with the imagery of yesterday's wars, not the determination to face tomorrow's challenges. Like most 'special relationships', really.

The writer is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)