It is said that Mark Twain once commented, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Maybe a more accurate version is that history doesn’t repeat itself, but people often do—for better or for worse.

Over the past seventy years, German and American leadership has been defined by shared interests and objectives. Despite any number of crises, there was usually general agreement on goals (if not always tactics). The German-American partnership has been a cornerstone of the larger framework of transatlantic relations—the widest and deepest web of self-interests in the world. And while leadership circles changed over these seven decades, the links have remained largely intact despite the inevitable clashes. That is a pretty remarkable achievement.

But is today different? Are the moorings loosening? The uproar over Donald Trump’s most recent comments about Europe suggest storm clouds are on the horizon. Whether they break depends on what kind of decisions are made by the leadership in Berlin and Washington now and in the future. People make a difference.

As Trump begins his tenure in the White House, a three-term chancellor will seek a fourth later this year. The contrast in both style and substance between Trump and Merkel could not be greater, but Merkel’s ability to work with the occupant of the White House has been well-demonstrated with Trump’s two predecessors. The chancellor was able to find common ground with both presidents largely because there was shared recognition of the value of partnership despite differences over specific policies.

Why should the Trump era in Washington be any different? It may not be. Nothing in the interplay of power politics suggests that German and American interests are any less aligned today than in the recent past.

Over the entire postwar period of relations between the Federal Republic of Germany and the United States, there was never a deficit of friction. That the Cold War division ran straight through the country made certain conflicts unavoidable—security policies, negotiations with Russia, relations with Eastern European countries, the presence of Americans soldiers throughout West German territory. More recently, these frictions have centered on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Balkans; trade issues; the fight against terror; or the causes of the Great Recession.

At the same time, we should not underestimate the forces of real interdependence between two of the most powerful economies in the world who also play pivotal roles in the entire global arena in meeting threats and challenges. As asymmetric in military power as they are, Germany and the U.S. have a shared stake in sustaining a stable European market and global free trade, fighting terrorism, crafting cyber security parameters, encouraging innovation in energy sources, confronting the impact of climate change and the spread of pandemics, and dealing with the challenge of global migration trends. Both countries have tools to pool and share in all these instances and they have done so repeatedly. There can be no doubt that every one of those areas of mutual concern is going to continue and multiply in urgency and relevance on both sides of the Atlantic. There is also every reason to try to combine whatever resources are available to confront and solve those problems, yet the chief reason is that no one country is going to be able to deal with them independently.

And, indeed, there is an acute willingness to actually share those resources between two countries who have managed to demonstrate over decades how cooperation advances mutual interests. No better symbol of that can be imagined than the cooperation that led to the unification of Germany twenty-six years ago. But there are other arenas that have benefitted: the enormous investments both the U.S. and Germany have made in each other—economic, scientific, educational, or indeed military—are possible because of the recognition of mutual interests. And that is echoed in shared concerns about global issues well beyond the specific framework of German-American relations.

Perhaps history doesn’t repeat itself, but even if it rhymes—occasionally for the better—the question is whether it is because sometimes people learn to see what has been useful, successful, and perhaps worthwhile. The responses in Europe to Trump’s initial very abbreviated messages about his opinions on NATO, the EU, Brexit, and Russia have set off alarms that may also remind people about the need to hear the echoes from history. No one should want to have the worst of twentieth century history repeat itself.  Donald Trump might be just beginning to discover this.


Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS.  Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.

  • Rob Houck

    Everyone who supports US-German relations cites investment. But the US had BIG investments in Germany pre-WWII – both in factories (Ford, IBM, GE, etc.) and bonds. They did not stop the war from breaking out. (OK, the Japanese started it and Germany declared war on us for no apparent reason.) Do you have numbers on this – on the size of the investments compared to GDP? I think we overestimate the importance of monetary investment. What’s important are people-to-people relationships. Once the plant is established here, a bigger investment is just a matter of a wire transfer. The big German investments in the last 20 years have been in the traditional red states – South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi. States that support America first / make America GREAT again. States with labor and social policies that are anathema to most Germans. Free trade? Germans want freedom to sell their products here, but also in Russia, China, Brazil…. But US products – areas where we have a competitive advantage – in Germany? Hmmm…. We’ve seen the thousands of Germans marching against TTIP. And what about US fines on German companies? VW and Deutsche Bank, for example. Those fines are a two-way street. Germany’s views and laws on privacy and personal data are the exact opposite of those here, the ones that power Facebook and other social media giants. You can bet they will get whacked big time, to even the score. As people are saying daily, time to buckle up / sich fest anschnallen.

    • JGoettgens

      That’s just the way it is.

      TPP also faces opposition in the U.S. and concerns about privacy in the digital age can be found there as well. The frequent LATimes editorials are just one sign of these, though securing an email server (wow!) is Neuland for many, regardless from where they are. The real challenge is our rapidly changing world, not the gridlocked assumptions and preconceptions about each other.

      There is no pure free trade; all countries do have certain restrictions, but as far as the big trade agreements are concerned, they were poorly communicated beforehand. The impression that they primarily serve the interests of multinational corporations was ubiquitous. I see room for improvement here as complex agreements are not self-explaining, though the underlying ideas are simple. It doesn’t work without a certain credit of trust in the population. Not easy to get nowadays.

      It is striking that many problems occur in industries where one nation has a relative advantage. Germans like to buy American IT and IT products and as someone recently noted, there are far too many German posh cars in New York. Maybe this is because of the free will and that there is a choice. The specialization has of course to do with globalization and free trade. This is not bad by itself. The whole package matters.

      If democracy is the “large arena” that is only limited by basic law and some norms, then it is not surprising that democratic states are also involved in heated arguments. Perhaps Timothy Garton Ash’s request for a “robust civility” is also the key how states should view their interactions and accept that the dispute is part of the process that lets them grow. I think the good will and a bit of reason is crucial.

      • Rob Houck

        A website is not a great forum for hashing out the pros and cons of free-ish trade, but…. Over the last 2-3 years, I have heard expert after expert tell groups about the advantages of free trade – mainly TTIP (Merkel’s initiative, to deal with slow growth in Germany). We all learned about comparative advantage in school. And the experts admitted that some people would lose out, casualties of the ability of some other country’s ability to do the same work cheaper or better or faster or… The advantages outweigh the disadvantages we are told. BUT – 1) Those who lose KNOW to blame free trade (even if it’s largely automatization). 2) Those who win assume it is simply their own superior abilities which resulted in their prosperity. Why should they share their hard-earned gains with the guys who are out of work? 3) Even if the winners share the gains with the losers, those losers have REALLY lost. If they worked in a factory, that factory provided structure and meaning to their lives. Assuming the factory employed a significant percentage of the workers in the town, ALL the real estate values go down all at once. The houses – locus of most people’s lifetime savings – are all worth less. Retraining is not so easy and involves risks, expenses and possible moves to unknown states – breaking up families and social structure. And who is to say that comparative advantage and lower prices should be the main goal? Americans churn out huge (HUGE) numbers of pigs and chickens in factories, producing vast pits of animal waste. The quality is pretty good and the process is efficient, producing lower prices, even when shipped across oceans. There is nothing charming or pastoral about it. So Germans stop raising pigs and chickens. What happens to the German countryside? To German farm villages? (We know that NAFTA wiped out small Mexican grain farmers. We “stole” THEIR jobs. If lucky, they now live in cities, working at auto plants.) We also lose cultural diversity. Austrians complain that their dialect is a victim of German TV. So the issue is not limited to US-EU or US-Asia. I don’t have an answer, but it’s clear to me that economists have done almost as poor a job as pollsters. Jack, get some economist to tell us how to balance free trade with social stability. If this analysis had begun with Clinton’s NAFTA, we would not be inaugurating Mr. Trump today.

        • JGoettgens

          “A website is not a great forum for hashing out the pros and cons…”
          This website sort of is. In real life we would hardly talk about these things. Working life is about representation of interests and this role play limits the debate. The echo chambers of the internet have in reality very little to do with the exchange of ideas and opinions. Bar talk is different, but the sociologist Sherry Cavan already noted many years ago that people indeed meet at eye level, but then it is only small talk. It remains a challenge to find a place where potentially everybody can shape reasonable opinions about topics of general importance.

          I think it is necessary to think about the mechanisms of a meaningful debate (again). The internet has effectively enlarged the voices in public discourses, but too many things are in parallel leading nowhere instead of being targeted. Da ist noch viel Luft nach oben.

          “And the experts admitted that some people would lose out, …”
          This is a necessity. I mostly agree with what you wrote, including that retraining is not so easy. I think you correctly noted that the loss of jobs affects ultimately what constitutes the home, or “Heimat”. Traditionally this should be of more concern to Germans.

          Retraining a few weeks is likely to fail, among other things it implies that one knows what will be the next safe source of revenue. Something more comprehensive is neded at the level of good regional planning. Different concepts of the state then tell what is actually possible. In essence the state must make sure that parts of the free trade benefits flow into structural programs and this involves more than a few hours vocational training. This way of thinking apparently did not play a role in the Rust Belt.

          One should also be so honest and admit that there can be valid reasons to limit free trade. Security and food can be of concern. It could also make sense to protect up-and-coming technologies for a limited amount of time. There might be other valid reasons. I think one always needs the entire picture.

          In physics one defines balance envelopes to describe processes. It matters whether one looks at a closed or open system. In any case one describes the sources and sinks inside these control volumes and all actions across the surfaces. Getting the balance right is often the major task. There is no such thing in politics and sufficient completeness is deemed not to be necessary. Consequently one arrives at creeds like “free trade” or “command economy”. Whether an honest politician with engineering skills would have a chance is another question.

          “We also lose cultural diversity.”
          So what? Neither the U.S. nor Germany are the Borg. Equality also means that one can marry each other and then some things get lost automatically, but I like to follow Paul here: “but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good.”

          • RSHouck3

            Re command vs. free market economies, my UC prof and Nobel Prize winner Ronald Coase has written on this. He notes that a manufacturing company usually buys some components for its products on the open market (long term contracts or spot market) and others it makes itself. The trick is to decide which are which. I don’t think anyone today wants to see a 100% control economy, but some seem to think if some free market is good, more is better. So little of our discussion these days recognizes the benefit of a mixture, of moderation. In any event, my call is for economists to put a value on the disruption – economic and social – that results from free trade. As a final aside, while living in Pittsburgh during the Cold War, a local engineering company was tasked with designing a steel fabrication plant for the Soviets. They rejected the plan. The reason (which we all found to be hilarious): the plant as designed did not employ enough people. Does not sound so funny today.

          • JGoettgens

            “Does not sound so funny today.”
            No, it still sounds funny. The problem of command economy is that the complexity of the national economies is severely underestimated. Principles and occasionally some corrections work, but not detailed orders.

          • RSHouck3

            The trick is to find the balance. Do we want Blackwater as our military? Do we want each airline to be responsible for its own security and screening? Should each president hire his or her own bodyguards? Should Microsoft have only a few employees, with the rest working as independent contractors at home or renting space at a space Microsoft itself rents month to month? Each mechanic at the BMW dealer being a guy hired daily? Maybe. By tying health care to employment, at one time the price of each Chevrolet included $2,000 for retired employees. Newcomer (then) Toyota didn’t have those costs.

          • JGoettgens

            “The trick is to find the balance.”
            Indeed, this promises success, but it is tedious. Subsidiarity could be a good guiding principle.

            Hiring single workers on a daily basis is not what I see. There are contracts with larger and smaller temporary employment agencies.

            The German healthcare system explicitly ties care to work ever since Bismarck. Either one pays higher wages or includes healthcare costs. The costs always exist, either within or on top. The alternative is to adjust the social system according to the least developed competitor (monetary matters excluded for the moment).

            I am not too familiar with TPP or TTIP, but these trade agreements contain passages about minimum social standards. I don’t know how good the paragraphs are, but by cancelling these contracts one gives up this influence. Bricking in oneself does not mean that the others stop trading and that reality changes. Having these agreements could set standards for the rest of the world. The current approaches of the U.S. and the EU are not really that different (contrary to common belief, source: European Parliament study PE 578.992).

            I think it is an open question whether the big trade agreements lead to race-to-the-top or race-to-the-bottom in labor conditions, though, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

          • Rob Houck

            Re work and insurance, correct me, but I think a German does not lose health insurance when he quits his job. If he has a pre-existing condition and quits, he is not excluded from insurance. Americans pride themselves on their independence and freedom, but they are slaves to their employer’s group health insurance. Whatever social standards exist in trade agreements, jobs will shift from one country to the other. What happens to the losers is not adequately dealt with. Otherwise we would not have our President. (Yes, computerization and increased productivity also play a role.)

          • JGoettgens

            I am aware that the social safety nets are different. Even though the U.S. economy is statistically in pretty good shape there are losers and there are losers who likely will never be winners. The reason why this is so has probably nothing to do with the U.S. Nancy Isenberg has written about it.

            One could argue that not taking care of the own losers is un-American. Going flat-footed with this thesis into a discussion is probably not a brilliant idea (though I might try it). If there are (some) real losers, this is also suitable to generate fear in the middle classes. Maybe this is what we see right now and that countries sometimes lack good judgement is also not new, mildly put.

            The downside of a welfare state is of course the financial feasibility. Das kann noch spannend auf europäischer Ebene werden.

            Getting back to the article and perhaps these are my concluding words. Some skepticism is indicated when Mr. Jackson says “the need to hear the echoes from history”. Back then the lovely nymph Echo wasn’t able to seduce, sorry convice, Narcissus (who might that be these days?). It should be noted that the story ended somewhat less than perfect for both of them. Only Echo’s voice remained and the narcissist ended as a nice flower. Which conclusions can we draw from this?