John Kerry has begun talks with top German leaders in Berlin to discuss their "common concerns," including military and economic ties. He's due to meet with the Russian foreign secretary at the end of his visit.
The new secretary of state pledged the US' commitment to advancing German-US relations during press conferences with Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle in Berlin on Tuesday.
Westerwelle praised the top US diplomat for traveling to Germany so soon after taking office, calling it "a clear commitment to the transatlantic partnership."
Kerry opened in German by saying it was wonderful to be back in Berlin. The secretary of state is no stranger to the city, where he spent part of his youth as the son of an American diplomat stationed in the then divided city.
Both Westerwelle and Kerry spoke of their mutual commitment to an upcoming EU-US free trade agreement set for negotiations this summer.
As Germany was the US' largest trade partner in Europe, Kerry said President Obama had made it a priority to advance all efforts toward reaching an agreement that would benefit both nations.
In 2011, the US was the fourth largest importer of German goods, worth nearly 50 billion euros ($65.5 billion). Germany, for its part, imported nearly 75 billion euros in US goods, making the North American country its second largest supplier.
The two also said they planned to discuss the upcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan. Last week, the US had announced its intention of maintaining a military mission of several thousands troops in Afghanstan beyond the planned withdrawal. Westerwelle confirmed that Bundeswehr soldiers would continue to support the work there beyond 2014.
According to the ISAF website, Germany has 4,318 troops stationed in Afghanistan compared to the US' 68,000.
The ongoing conflict in Syria and Iran's nuclear program were also top of the agenda on Tuesday. Kerry declined to discuss possible proposals in the Syrian opposition talks slated for later in the week out of respect for upcoming consultations with various leaders. Commenting on the negotiations with Iran was also beyond the scope of his mission at this time, he said, given that talks had begun in Kazakhstan.
Talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, which Kerry said he was looking forward to, were also scheduled for the Berlin visit.
In recent months, relations between Moscow and Washington have become increasingly tense. In addition to stark disagreements over bringing an end to the conflict in Syria and Iran's nuclear program, Washington has criticized Russia for human rights abuses. The Kremlin, in retaliation, banned US adoptions of Russian children.
The US secretary of state's 9-nation tour began on positive note during his London visit. In coordination with his British counterpart Foreign Secretary William Hague, Kerry was able to convince the head of the Syrian National Coalition - the main opposition group to Syrian President Bashar Assad - to attend an upcoming Friends of Syria conference in Rome.
After talks in Berlin, Kerry is set to travel to Paris to meet with French President Francois Hollande and then to Rome. The last leg of his tour will take him to Turkey, Egypt, Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
kms/rg (Reuters, dpa)