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The decline of the US-German relationship is not just about Trump

28 November 2018

10:38 AM

28 November 2018

10:38 AM

It would be the understatement of the century to say that the normally constructive and cordial relationship between the United States and Germany was experiencing a few hiccups in the age of Donald Trump. Notwithstanding talk about mutual respect and friendship during shared photo sessions, Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are not exactly two peas in a pod. In fact, the two leaders are polar opposites in temperament, experience, and worldview: Trump is the loud-mouth, condescending, bull-in-a-china shop from New York who campaigned on burning America’s political system to the ground; Merkel is the consummate European politician deeply attached to multilateralism and extremely devoted to the rules-based international order.

Trump and Merkel not only carry different personalities, but are leading two countries increasingly in competition on critical foreign policy issues. While it’s an undeniable fact that a US president not named Donald Trump would likely be a more docile and agreeable partner for the Germans to work with (who can forget the story of Trump throwing a hard candy at Merkel during this year’s G7 meeting with a dismissive, ‘Here, Angela. Don’t say I never give you anything?’) an ever-changing world virtually guarantees that Washington and Berlin’s positions will collide more than any of us are used to.

While it’s difficult to measure the state of a bilateral relationship, the Pew Research Center released a survey this week of American and German attitudes that reveal the extent of the divergence. The findings are illustrative; while 70 per cent of Americans believe the US-German relationship is in a good state, 73 per cent of Germans consider ties to be in a bad condition. This is seventeen points higher than last year’s number, when 56 per cent of Germans surveyed said the relationship with their American counterparts was bad. Americans don’t even rank Germany in the top five most important parters for the United States; Berlin trails far behind the United Kingdom, China, and Canada in the poll.

One public poll, of course, isn’t determinative of the entire relationship. And to be completely fair, this is hardly the first time US and German leaders have irritated one another. On the road to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was one of the main European leaders to vocally oppose then-President George W. Bush’s decision to bypass the UN Security Council. Schroeder partnered with France’s Jacques Chirac and Russia’s Vladimir Putin to lambast America’s Iraq policy as an erratic usurpation of international law. US-German ties were not all flowers and sunshine during President Barack Obama’s tenure either; while Obama and Merkel viewed one another as friends, the friendship was dealt a setback when news leaked that the US National Security Agency has wiretapped Merkel’s phone calls.


Yet even during Bush’s time, analysts, commentators, and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic never truly entertained the notion of the US-German alliance collapsing. This time, the conversation feels a little different.

With respect to the Iran nuclear deal, the US and Germany are actively trying to undermine the policy of the other. Washington’s decision to revoke its participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action despite German and European entreaties to the contrary was distressing enough for America’s old friends. But to the Europeans, the Trump administration’s imposition of secondary sanctions on Iran was a massive slight — a conscience decision by the ‘Ugly American’ to deliberately destroy the European Union’s landmark diplomatic achievement. Berlin, in partnership with Paris and Brussels, are now fighting back and hoping to build a firewall protecting European companies from investing in Iran without American sanctions looming over their heads. If the concept proves effective, the establishment of a special payments system would be a direct challenge to America’s political and economic might from its own allies.

On energy, the Americans and Germans are engaged in a battle that spilled into the most coveted multilateral forum for the transatlantic community: the annual NATO summit. Trump’s description of Germany as a captive of Russia’s Vladimir Putin due to Berlin’s dependence on Russian natural gas was taken as disrespect by German MPs who are never too shy to express their repugnance towards Trump. What Merkel and her cabinet see as a way to satisfy Germany’s energy demands, the Americans see as a project that only undercuts Ukraine’s economy and gives Putin more leverage over Europe.

No topic, however, has added such strain on US-German ties as defence spending. Even before Donald Trump entered the White House, Washington has long been of the belief that the Europeans are laggards and freeloaders on all-things military. Robert Gates, the defence secretary under presidents Bush and Obama, spoke about ‘a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance’ if European governments didn’t start taking their commitments to NATO seriously. President Obama, widely considered a Europeanist, openly derided ‘free riders,’ a not-so-subtle shot at European countries (like Germany, Denmark, Italy, and Spain) that had paltry defence budgets. Berlin is making incremental strides to correct the problem — German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen wants a 40 per cent increase in military dollars over the next four years — but the progress isn’t fast enough for the current occupant of the Oval Office.

And then there is Germany’s own place in the world. In the roughly thirty years of the post-Cold War period, Berlin has largely been comfortable with letting the Americans being the captain of the transatlantic ship. Yet the elevation of a nationalist Trump has created a much-needed conversation among the German public about whether Germany and Europe as a whole should have a Plan B and perhaps break its dependency on Washington. French President Emmanuel Macron’s call for a European army, one Merkel backed up weeks ago, suggests Europe’s major powers are more willing than ever to explore the principle of strategic autonomy.

Underneath the sterilized cameos and assurances of business continuing as usual, the transnational relationship is undergoing tremors Americans or Europeans haven’t witnessed since the Soviet Union dissolved. And while Donald Trump may be a big factor in the equation, the shift is about more than the antics of one man or woman.


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