The Odd Couple

If there is a clash of opinions between George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, you know where the buck would stop: Bush. And the differences would be kept carefully behind the scenes. With Gordon Brown and his foreign secretary, David Miliband, it would be much the same. Not so in Germany. Not only do Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier belong to rival political parties, thanks to the awkward grand coalition of Christian and Social Democrats that's been running the country since 2005, but the two have been sniping ever since, often to the confusion of Germany's allies. Whether it's over Berlin's relations with the Dalai Lama or how to deal with an authoritarian Russia, Merkel and Steinmeier have had some very public disagreements. Now that Steinmeier has emerged as a leading candidate to run against Merkel for the Social Democrats in next year's Bundestag election, the discord—and the confusion it sows—will only grow.

Even without the politicking, it was predictable that the two would clash. As chief of staff to Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, Steinmeier was the protégé of the most instinctively anti-American and pro-Russian politician to run modern Germany, and helped engineer a policy that put the country's business interests before human rights, pushing for Germany to "emancipate" itself from America by pursuing new alliances in a multipolar world. Merkel, an East German, made it her priority to undo her predecessor's policies, returning to German politics what she believes is a moral compass while steering her country back toward its traditional Western allies.

One key focus for the clash of world views is Russia, whose president, Dmitry Medvedev, visited Berlin last week— his first stop in a Western capital since taking office in May. Not that long ago, Schröder called Vladimir Putin a "flawless" democrat, and Steinmeier clearly favors a similarly quiet, nonconfrontational approach. Merkel, by contrast, has been giving Putin and Medvedev some frank talk about human rights, press freedom and Western discomfort with Russia's growing authoritarianism.

Similarly, when Merkel received the Dalai Lama at the Chancellery last year, Steinmeier said it was wrong to annoy China, snapping at Merkel that her meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader was mere "window dressing." "It takes more courage today not to meet with the Dalai Lama," Steinmeier sneered, according to German magazine reports, defending his refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama during another Berlin visit in May.

The two clash on European and transatlantic matters as well. Merkel opposes Turkish EU membership; Steinmeier supports it. The chancellor is in favor of American plans for a Europe-based missile defense; Steinmeier warns of a new arms race and wants Russia involved. Last month Steinmeier was incensed by a proposal by Merkel's party to install a U.S.-style national-security council in the Chancellery, which would effectively move the nexus of Germany's foreign policy even farther away from Steinmeier's ministry. He quickly reminded Germans it was America's NSC that played a key role in planning the war in Iraq—with the not-so-subtle subtext aimed at Germany's pacifist majority that this was a dangerous and potentially war-mongering move.

For all that, though, the two have steered clear of any all-out disasters, says Jan Techau at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "Despite Merkel's more vocal stance on human rights, there hasn't been a blip in Germany's skyrocketing trade with Russia and China," he says. And for now, the two are condemned to work together in the coalition. If Steinmeier clashes with the popular Merkel too openly, he risks looking destructive to consensus-minded Germans and will lose support. Moreover, their simmering disagreements have yet to come to a boil because with a U.S.-election underway there have been few serious decisions to make. That could change quickly once a new U.S. president makes new demands for the allies to get more involved in Afghanistan or help reconstruct Iraq, as both Obama and McCain have promised they would do.

By then, the German election season will be in full swing, too. "The Social Democrats will likely try to paint Merkel as too confrontational and pro-American," says Techau. Merkel, in turn, will likely avoid making any decision to support the United States that might hand Steinmeier the kind of "peace card" that helped Schröder win the 2002 election. When her party pushed for the new national-security council, she was quick to say it wouldn't be implemented until after the election, at the earliest. That suggests the most likely scenario, for now anyway, will be a foreign-policy freeze in Germany—and a lot more sniping back-and-forth.