History Does Not Repeat Itself. People Do.
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.