Germany in the Age of Trump

By Ulrich Speck

Despite Angela Merkel’s efforts to engage with Trump, the US president shows no interest in working with Germany; instead he vividly attacks Berlin for exporting too much and for spending too little on defense. The traditional US-German relationship based on mutual trust seems to be gone; Trump apparently sees allies as a burden, not an asset. But Germany continues to rely on the US for its security and prosperity, more than many other US allies. What can Germany do to protect its interests in the new strategic environment?

Politico Europe reports from Merkel’s recent Washington trip:

“During the lunch meeting, Trump congratulated Merkel, whom he jokingly referred to as the “president” of Europe, for successfully “ripping off” successive U.S. administrations on defense and trade, according to a person present during the exchange.”

That appears to be the new tone in the American-German relationship.

The next hit came only a few days later. Not only that Trump had brushed off French and German attempts to save the Iran deal. Quickly after the president had declared that the US would leave the deal, the new US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, wrote on Twitter:

“German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”

Which led Wolfgang Ischinger, head of the Munich Security Conference and a former German ambassador to the US, to a robust rebuke:

“Ric: my advice, after a long ambassadorial career: explain your own country’s policies, and lobby the host country — but never tell the host country what to do.”

For more than a year, Berlin was confident that it could work constructively with the “grown-ups” in the Trump administration — McMaster, Tillerson, Mattis — who would constrain Trump. “Don’t listen to what he tweets, look at what he does”, was the standard advice from people close to the Trump White House to their German contacts. And Merkel’s strategy to play nicely and to invite Ivanka to Berlin, after her first visit in the Trump White House in March 2017, seemed to work. Despite some hostile rhetoric, things seemed to settle and continuity seemed to prevail.

But with the Trump national security team 2.0 in place now— John Bolton as National Security Advisor, Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State— , the wind has apparently turned. The US president has chosen people who are much more in tune with his own long-held views and his political instincts, and the president himself seems to be much more confident in pushing his disruptive agenda: Trump unchained.

Merkel had, after her first visit toWashington, abstained from engaging further with Trump. She first needed to win elections and form a new government; and for both purposes it was crucial to keep the distance to the US president, making sure the opposition, especially SPD led by Sigmar Gabriel, couldn’t portray her as Trump’s “poodle”. After finally being reelected for her fourth term in March 2018, Merkel came to Washington with the goal to reboot the partnership.

Trump is the third US president Merkel is dealing with as a chancellor. With George W. Bush and Obama, Merkel had built close and trustful relationships; she knew that Trump would be more difficult. But what she experienced during her second visit in the Trump White House was shocking: The president showed no interest in listening to her and getting her advice, no interest in engaging with Germany as a partner. Instead, according to reports, she received a dressing-down, was confronted with a litany of perceived German wrongdoings.

Merkel has always been a committed transatlanticist, leading a country that has been one of America’s closest allies and partners for many decades. Since the end of World War II, (Western-)Germany’s success story was only possible because America was ready to protect and support the former enemy. On the one hand America played a key role in the founding of the Bundesrepublik in 1949, in its survival as a liberal democracy during the Cold War and in the unification process in 1989 which George H.W. Bush advocated early on, against Russian objections and heavy skepticism among Germany’s neighbors. On the other hand the US provided Germany with an international environment in which it could thrive and economically prosper: a “liberal international order” first in the west, after 1989 extended globally.

The American idea for the relationship with Germany after unification was „partnership in leadership“ (George H. W. Bush, May 1989): the unified Germany, one of the leading economies of the world, should be treated as an equal. Germany should become one or even the key European partner for the US: A like-minded liberal country with close bonds to America, helping to steer the broader transatlantic relationship, the key axis of the international liberal order.

And indeed there was a lot of partnership, even if Germany was too self-constraint to move into a true leadership role, at least on classic foreign policy issues (on EU matters Germany has always co-led with France). Coordination and cooperation between Bonn/Berlin and Washington for example was crucial for getting Central Europe into NATO and EU.

There have been many ups and some downs in the partnership between the unified Germany and the US, with the lowest point in 2003 with the sharp and public disagreement about the Iraq war. But the idea of partnership has always been present, even in the most difficult moments: these were disagreements in a family, after all. And in the last 13 years, since coming to power in 2005, chancellor Merkel has managed to build close and trustful relationships with her American counterparts, first with George W. Bush and then, after some initial dissonances, with Barack Obama.

The Obama years in fact came closest to the idea of “partnership in leadership”, especially with regard to the joint management of relations with Russia at the height of the Ukraine conflict (see my analysis here). Merkel became Obama’s most important European partner. Obama’s close advisor Ben Rhodes said that Merkel

“has been, I’d say, the President’s closest partner over the course of his entire presidency. She’s been there the entire time. They’ve worked together on almost every issue. They’ve developed a deep mutual respect, I think, and close friendship as well.”

Why was Germany so important for Obama? On the one hand, Obama understood that Merkel was key for getting the EU on board for any major policy — Berlin’s weight in the EU has grown in the last years, increasingly overshadowing Paris and Brussels. On the other hand Germany’s „postmodern“ approach to foreign policy — focusing on trade, legal agreements, international institutions and global governance instead of “hard” geopolitics — , was very much in tune with Obama’s own rather postmodern globalist views and agenda.

Tempi passati. This relationship is now in tatters.

Trump’s main points of attack are Germany’s trade surplus and its low defense spending. Germany is indeed highly vulnerable on both. The success of its economy is based on export, and large parts of this export relies on the existence of a global, US-guaranteed liberal economic order. And Germany’s low defense spending is at least partly made possible by Germany’s intimate security partnership with Nato/US. In other words, take the US out of the equation and Germany is in trouble, with regard to its prosperity as well as its security.

What makes this situation even more difficult for Germany is that Trump’s attacks aren’t universally rejected by Germany’s European partners and its American friends (Democrats and Republicans). Germany’s export-oriented business model as well as its low investment in defense have been widely criticized in the last years in Europe and in the US — also by the Obama administration. Many of those who disagree sharply with Trump today are quietly or not so quietly agreeing with Trump’s attacks on Germany.

The most dangerous aspect from the German perspective however is that this criticism is not balanced by a positive agenda between Berlin and Washington. In past the areas of agreements have overshadowed the areas of disagreements. Not anymore. The Trump administration shows no interest in working closely with Germany on any international dossier, and Germany disapproves of almost all recent US foreign policy moves. The lack of a joint agenda puts the areas of disagreement at the forefront of the relationship.

And Trump has put in place a team that seems to share his agenda. Trump’s first national security team was status quo-oriented, it’s strategic priority was to work with allies in order to protect the liberal international order against the challengers China and Russia (as the 2018 US National Defense Strategy has laid out clearly). The Trump administration 2.0 by contrast seems to care little for allies, for international support and legitimacy—in other words, for exactly the things where Germany in the past has been a useful ally to US administrations.

Trump’s recent meeting with Merkel has left no doubt: the current American president does not treat Germany like a partner. The new tone coming from the US administration suggests that the White House sees the relationship with Germany not anymore as a horizontal “partnership” or “alliance” between equals at least in rights and formal rank — rather as an asymmetric relationship between a master who is free from constraints and a client who has to obey to his orders, or get punished.

The fact that Germany has been downgraded in Washington does not mean that UK or France are upgraded — there seems to be no more “special relationship” between the US and any ally, and Europeans should call the intra-European competition for the post of America’s best friend off. This is not about Germany, it is about how the Trump administration defines the international system: more in line with the “spheres of influence”-model pursued by Russia and China than with the UN model of equal states. While the tone between Trump and Macron is different, and there is no similar list of complaints, Trump nevertheless appears to be equally uninterested in advice from France. The role of the old and wise (Greek) advisor to (young, powerful but naive) Rome, which Europeans often wish to take on, is simply not available in the Trump universe. The US president apparently thinks, after one year in office, that he outsmarts everybody else — starting with his own predecessors.

As far as transatlantic relations are concerned, the Trump presidency looks like a revolution: the end of a unique relationship which has been set up after World War II and evolved during the Cold War into the most important axis of America’s system of alliances (“the west”); a relationship that survived the end of the Cold War, with the US and Europe jointly becoming the core of the liberal world order after 1989.

Of course, the Trump presidency may fail spectacularly. What we observe could be just a difficult episode in the long history of a solid transatlantic relationship which has seen many lows and many highs — but rests ultimately on more than just sympathy, on joint interests. After Trump another US president may push the reset button and bring everything back on track. Or even Trump may finally understand that allies are an asset and not just a burden.

But it could also be very different. Trump could, especially if re-elected, undermine the fundamentals of that relationship: trust and respect, a positive joint narrative, the sense of like-mindedness, the willingness to invest in the relationship, and the acceptance of mutual interdependence in a globalized world.

Trump might be pushed in that direction by something much bigger than Trump: a growing unwillingness of the American people to invest significantly in foreign policy, to bear the burden for global order, in a world that presents, unlike the world of the Cold War, no obvious and significant threat to America. Obama and Trump have both emphasized the need to change the balance between investment abroad and investment at home (“nation-building at home”) and have both criticized allies as free-riders. The next US president may be very different from Trump in tone and style but not so much in substance: he or she might equally be convinced that the US is overburdened and should become just one power among others, not a global policeman or the guarantor of an international order.

Germany in any case has to hedge its bets. As chancellor Merkel has warned several times, it cannot expect America to always protect Europe.

In other words, Berlin cannot just sit and wait. It has to adapt to the new strategic environment, with all its uncertainties. But what does adaptation mean?

For Germany it is almost impossible to cut itself off from the transatlantic relationship on the short and mid-term. The US plays a vital role for Germany’s well-being. Germany cannot guarantee its own security — unlike France or Britain — , it relies on a US nuclear deterrent and on America’s geopolitical weight to deter Russian aggression. And Germany’s economic success is based on export, for which the country depends on the free and open global trade order build and protected overwhelmingly by the US.

The obvious plan B, to which many today refer, including the chancellor, is “Europe” as an alternative to the US.

That idea is not new. Germans who strongly resent the dependency from the US, on the left and on the right, but also at the center, have always looked for a European alternative to US dominance, which in practice means: French leadership. And France has often enough been tempted to present itself as an alternative to US primacy in Europe. But deep down it is clear to Germans that Paris cannot replace Washington. France cannot provide a similar security guarantee (which for Germany must include Central Europe), it cannot take a lead in managing great power relations — with Russia and China —, and France certainly cannot guarantee a global system of free trade. While German-French cooperation is important for the EU, it cannot replace the “services” the US provides to Germany.

But going it alone is equally not an option for Germany. An assertive, more nationalist Germany investing heavily in its military, trying to build its own nuclear deterrent and acting boldly and independently on the international scene would quickly lead to counter-coalitions in Europe, to a very hostile environment. The old “German question” would be immediately back on the table, and that would mean the end of the open border-system of the EU which to maintain is a top German economic and political interest.

That leaves Germany without a clear-cut grand strategy. Berlin will have to muddle through, it will have to do a bit of everything. It will have to work with the Trump administration despite all difficulties, trying to save as much as possible from the existing US-German relationship. It will have to accept some humiliations, and it will have to accept a higher price for the relationship which becomes more transactional: yes, appease Trump’s anger over trade imbalances and defense spending.

At the same time Germany will have to strengthen the partnership with France and Britain, as a way to build a stronger Europe that is more capable to deal with the geopolitical challenges: from the troubled Middle East to an aggressive Russia and an increasingly neo-imperialist China. Together with like-minded partners — fellow liberal democracies such as Japan, India, Mexico or Canada — , the Europeans will have to protect and further develop the liberal world order.

And last but not least Germany has to diminish its dependency on others by investing in its military and by balancing exports with more investments at home.

Germany will remain a status quo-power, quite happy with how things are (and were in the last decades). But being defensive is not going to be enough in the years to come. Germany needs to become more active on the international scene, as the international scene is becoming more risky and more competitive. It has to go out of its postmodern comfort zone in many regards and become itself a bit more robust — without losing its globalist attitude and outlook. In that sense, Trump presents an opportunity.