A Strained, Yet Indispensable Partnership: German-American Relations in the Age of Donald J. Trump
For the past seventy years, the German-American and the European-American partnership has rested on a shared understanding of common goals: The transatlantic partners believed that the promotion of democracy, rule of law, and multilateral institutions; the support for market economic practices and free trade; the nurturing of alliances and collective defense mechanisms; as well the support for human rights and liberal values was in their best interest. While diverging regional priorities, imbalanced burden-sharing, and difficulties forging joint strategies have strained the transatlantic partnership for a while, U.S. president Donald Trump suggests that the U.S. should walk away from the old liberal internationalist consensus altogether.
Germany and its European allies have repeatedly found themselves on the opposing end of the president’s worldview and his administration’s policies. Trump regularly disparages democratic political processes and the free press in the U.S., caters to autocratic leaders abroad, and denounces democratic allies. Viewing European integration as detrimental to U.S. interests, Trump tries to “bilateralize” relations and finds common cause with European right-wing anti-EU populists. While skeptical toward the EU, he has been outright hostile toward Germany, charging that the country used malign trade practices (“the Germans are bad, very bad”) and was a security free-rider owing “vast sums of money” to the U.S. Trump discredits multilateralism and alliances like NATO, and his administration has left an array of international agreements, such as the Paris climate agreement, the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran, UNESCO, or the UN Human Rights Council. Under his leadership the U.S. has imposed unilateral trade tariffs outside of the WTO system on rivals and partners alike and launched a trade conflict with China. Departing from U.S. tradition as a champion for global norms and liberal values, Trump echoes illiberal sentiments and disregards universal human rights.
The political climate in Germany incentivizes policymakers to push back against Trump in disbelief and indignation. Donald Trump is considered an appalling political figure by large parts of the German public. A Pew survey found that only 11 percent trust President Trump to do the right thing in world affairs—down from a level of confidence of 86 percent when Barack Obama left office. In an opinion poll on what concerns Germans most, Donald Trump’s policies ranked as the top concern: 69 of the respondents said that they fear the policies of the U.S. president will make the world less safe. Political figures echo these sentiments. Chancellor Angela Merkel, a committed transatlanticist, cautiously noted in 2017 that the U.S. may not be a fully reliable partner any longer. Foreign minister Heiko Maas forcefully pushes the idea that Europe’s answer to “America First” must be “Europe United” and that Europe should balance the United States whenever it “crosses the line.” He is convinced that there was no way to sit Trump out and hope for a normalization of relations, as transatlantic interests and values are diverging for good: “There are structural changes in the transatlantic relations. We in Germany and especially in Europe have to strategically adapt to this.”
In an opinion poll on what concerns Germans most, Donald Trump’s policies ranked as the top concern: 69 of the respondents said that they fear the policies of the U.S. president will make the world less safe.
While true, it is crucial that we draw the correct strategic conclusions. The Trump administration indeed poses a severe challenge. German foreign policy has rested upon two pillars over the past seventy years: a close partnership with its European neighbors and a close partnership with the United States. The country is thoroughly committed to an ever-stronger European Union and a rules-based liberal international order. Defining shared interests rather than national ones is as much part of Germany’s political DNA as the principled commitment to multilateralism. Viewed from Germany, all of this has been the recipe for peace, stability, and prosperity in Europe and beyond. Trump questions every tenet thereof and directly threatens Germany’s foreign policy identity, interests, and strategies. Yet calling for a post-American EU foreign policy or suggesting to “balance” the United States exacerbates the problem: It is self-delusional, a-strategic, and self-defeating.
First: It falsely implies that “Europe United” is a real strategic alternative. Even if Europe was united, it would, as of today, neither be able to defend itself militarily nor to protect its interests against a rising China or an assertive Russia in a world marked by power shifts and diverging interests. Yet the sad fact of the matter is that the EU is marred by internal discord with no quick fix in sight. The conflict between the forces of liberalism and illiberalism, between supporters of national sovereignty and multilateral cooperation, between internationalism and anti-globalism, is not one between Europe and the United States, but plays out within West.
The conflict between the forces of liberalism and illiberalism, between supporters of national sovereignty and multilateral cooperation, between internationalism and anti-globalism, is not one between Europe and the United States, but plays out within West.
Second: It is far-fetched to assume that disruptive Trumpism is the new normal in Washington. While the partisan divide and a polarized public will shape American politics and policies in the foreseeable future, a wide bipartisan coalition in Congress and the national security establishment supports traditional U.S. foreign policy postures: the need to exert credible and principled leadership abroad; the need to vigorously defend democracy and the rules-based order against its enemies; the need to confront geopolitical rivals like Russia and China; the value of alliances and multilateral approaches to protect America’s interests. Recent congressional actions on Russia and NATO as well as the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy of “principled realism” serve as examples. The U.S. is more willing than before to face up to competitors and push ahead on its own pace. Since geopolitical great power rivalry has returned, we can expect to see more of this in the future. Yet much of the chaotic and unpredictable quality of current U.S. foreign policy has to do with the president’s impulsive and often erratic operating style, not a fundamental redefinition of U.S. global interests.
Third: Despite the many comprehensible objections to the Trump administration’s policies—be it on trade, the JCPOA, or the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty—responses should be defined by a thorough assessment of interests, not by outrage about whatever Donald Trump says or does. Current U.S. trade policy tends to be criticized as “protectionist” and as a threat to the liberal economic order. Yet moving beyond the president’s rhetoric, the view from Washington is that it is high time to confront China’s unfair trade practices and the dysfunction of the WTO in order to save the liberal economic order. The U.S. decision to retreat from the JCPOA was met with efforts to protect Iran’s re-integration into the global economy against U.S. sanctions. While the 2015 agreement was a crucial success, it by no means solved the strategic challenge posed by Iran. The limits of the JCPOA, the disappointing record of Iran’s behavior in the non-nuclear realm, as well as Tehran’s destabilizing regional activities were largely absent in the debate. Similarly, when the U.S. announced its intention to withdraw from the INF treaty in October 2018, reactions suggested that the Trump administration destroyed a central pillar of European security, even though Russia has violated the INF treaty and brazenly issued nuclear threats against European countries with impunity for years. There is ample reason to disagree with the Trump administration’s approach in all cases, but there is no denying that the roots of the problems lay elsewhere.
Fourth: The evolving German narrative that the U.S. was “no longer reliable” or that Europeans needed to form a counter-weight does not go unnoticed in Washington—and it does not go down well. It frustrates those who believe in a strong transatlantic bond and does nothing to shape emerging U.S. policies. Viewed from Washington, Germany and most other European NATO allies have, time and time again, proven unreliable, making commitments they have never lived up to. The U.S., however, has always been a reliable guarantor of European security. Despite the Obama administration’s frustration about European feebleness and the strategic imperative to focus on the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. stood firmly at the side of its European partners when Russia annexed Crimea, destabilized Ukraine, and ramped up its provocations against NATO members from 2014 onward. Despite President Trump’s rhetoric, the U.S. has not wavered in its support for the alliance and has increased its contributions to European security. Actions speak louder than words. The same is true for German and European shortcomings despite promises to step up.
Viewed from Washington, Germany and most other European NATO allies have, time and time again, proven unreliable, making commitments they have never lived up to.
So what should be done?
First, Germany needs to keep calm—and grow with the challenge. Un-emotional damage control, as has been practiced by Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a wise guiding principle in the face of transatlantic frictions. Getting serious about investing in German and European strategic, conceptual, and material capabilities as well as in the political will to defend the rules-based liberal international order is imperative. Cultivating closer ties with other stakeholders, such as Canada or Japan, and like-minded partners in the U.S., is a sound additional step. Second, Germany together with its European partners needs to learn to think and act more proactively, trying to offer policy proposals instead of lamenting the Trump administration’s missteps. Berlin should be well aware that the U.S. has always practiced an instrumental multilateralism, focused on results more than on process. The current administration is even more impatient than others in this regard, while Germany is—understandably—tied to the process of cooperative multilateralism. Yet it needs to intellectually prepare itself for the limits of cooperation and engagement in an increasingly competitive world. Third, Germany should focus less on President Trump’s rhetoric than on political substance and the many transatlantic commonalities of interests. The rules-based liberal international order is challenged by global power shifts as well as the alternative visions of order pushed by revisionists like Russia and China and internal critics in the West. Germany, Europe, and the United States need to embrace this struggle for the future of the international order. It is up to them to define what the West stands for and what it is up against. In a world where competing non-democratic visions of world order are on the march, Germany and Europe do not have any better partner than the U.S.—and vice versa.