The 70th Anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany:  Challenges and Opportunities for the German-American Future and the Atlantic Community

On May 23, 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was established, a new state formed out of the zones of American, British, and French occupation.  It was an incomplete step that proceeded in stages—West Germany would wait until 1954 for its sovereignty to be recognized by the three Western victors, and until the 1990 “Two-Plus-Four” treaty for full restoration of sovereignty on the territory of both Germanys.  Throughout that time, the United States remained a shaper, supporter, and ultimately militarily, a defender of German democracy.

The American promotion and protection of an increasingly integrated Europe, which became a partner in defending the transatlantic space and fostering unparalleled prosperity for all involved, has been the greatest achievement of American foreign policy in the past seventy years.  A continent that had been the source of two devastating global conflicts and tens of millions of military and civilian deaths was transformed, first into a stable West and ultimately into a unified Europe with Germany at its center—a stunning success.

The German “Basic Law” (Grundgesetz) was essential to that success.  German political leaders finalized it under supervision of U.S., British, and French occupation authorities, at the same time that the United States was demonstrating its economic and military commitment through the Marshall Plan, the security guarantee in NATO, and the Berlin Airlift.  To contemplate those nearly simultaneous initiatives is to recognize the magnitude of this Washington-led undertaking, whose ultimate outcome was highly uncertain at the time and only seems inevitable in hindsight.

We also cannot forget that at its founding, the Federal Republic did not include all Germans.  This year’s 30th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall is a poignant reminder of the sacrifices and dedication of many East Germans whose destiny was deferred by the Cold War division of Europe, who ultimately defied their dictatorial regime, and who demonstrated for their voices to be heard in free elections.  That political leaders in Washington and in Europe struck a path to the peaceful reunification of Germany was a result of American commitment to Europe, from which the United States has benefited enormously.

That political leaders in Washington and in Europe struck a path to the peaceful reunification of Germany was a result of American commitment to Europe, from which the United States has benefited enormously.

Generations of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic were shaped by the war and its ensuing destruction and by the high tensions and high stakes of the Cold War, which Chancellor Angela Merkel experienced from the other side of the Iron Curtain.  Those leaders are leaving the scene, as we are reminded by the chancellor’s intention not to serve beyond the current legislative term that ends in 2021.

German determination to build its democracy and reconcile with its neighbors, and American dedication to the decades-long defense of its European allies were crucial.  That is all the more reason for Germany and the United States to remember the reasons for their shared accomplishment and to consider the fundamental principles that should define their partnership for the coming decades.  The 70th anniversary of the founding of the Federal Republic falls on the eve of European Union elections that seem to portend growing influence for far-right and anti-EU political forces.  This makes it an ideal time to assess the future of German-American relations.  In the same way that Germany for decades has defined and pursued its interests as part of a larger European project, so the U.S.-German partnership has been embedded in a broader transatlantic relationship.  The direction of the EU is thus a key factor in the cooperation between Washington and Berlin, and in the two countries’ shared future.  Together, the United States and Europe, as the two largest economies and biggest defense spenders, have an ability together to shape international developments that they cannot match individually.

In the same way that Germany for decades has defined and pursued its interests as part of a larger European project, so the U.S.-German partnership has been embedded in a broader transatlantic relationship.

There are blind spots on both sides of the Atlantic that should concern us.  Washington at present lacks a comprehensive agenda for political collaboration with its European partners on challenges such as China’s global economic, political, and technological role.  It is the diplomatic equivalent of fighting with one arm tied behind our backs.  In the United States, both political parties call for a more equitable defense partnership and a more equitable sharing of the burden of transatlantic security.  This is a natural accompaniment to European sovereignty and a justifiable rebalancing.  Yet many in the United States insist that this greater European (and German) responsibility must be exercised in precisely the fashion Washington chooses.  For decades, U.S. dominance of the transatlantic security agenda was purchased at the price of disproportionate contributions and risks—the price of leadership, in other words.  If the American leadership seeks to rebalance that relationship, it will mean inevitably either a recognition that European partners define some objectives differently, or a growing estrangement and mutual distrust.

In Germany, there is an understandable attachment to the status quo that brought security and prosperity for so many years, and a reluctance to react to the deteriorating international situation.  The security challenges in Europe’s neighborhood, the centrifugal forces inside the EU, and the changing global economic dynamics nevertheless will require institutional innovations and fresh policies, if Germany is to play its role in adapting the EU, bridging the east-west and north-south cleavages, and ensuring that Europe contributes more decisively to security.  These efforts require resources and a clearly articulated national commitment, in order to provide a firm base of sustained public support.  As the country that has profited most from the postwar Pax Americana, Germany has the most at stake in shoring up the European and transatlantic order for the coming decades.

The security challenges in Europe’s neighborhood, the centrifugal forces inside the EU, and the changing global economic dynamics nevertheless will require institutional innovations and fresh policies, if Germany is to play its role in adapting the EU, bridging the east-west and north-south cleavages, and ensuring that Europe contributes more decisively to security.

The success of the liberal, democratic, and internationally oriented Germany was the result of its constitutional order, the commitment of its leaders and citizens, and the partnership with the United States.  Our shared future rests on a sturdy foundation, provided we fill it with common objectives, collaborative efforts, and a continuously refreshed understanding of our mutual dependence and the rewards of transatlantic cohesion.


Read more on the 70th anniversary of the Federal Republic of Germany

Seventy Years as a Country of Immigrants: What’s Next for Germany? by Susanne Dieper
From Fear to Friendship: Franco-German Relations in 1949 and 2019 by Lily Gardner Feldman
From Bonn to Berlin: Seventy Years of the FRG by Jackson Janes
Sovereignty Regained, Economic Order Uncertain: Germany’s Social Market Economy at 70 by Peter Rashish
The Past Shapes the Future: The German Constitution at 70 by Stephen F. Szabo

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
Jeffrey Rathke

Jeff Rathke

President of AICGS

Jeffrey Rathke is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Prior to joining AICGS, Jeff was a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at CSIS, where his work focused on transatlantic relations and U.S. security and defense policy. Jeff joined CSIS in 2015 from the State Department, after a 24-year career as a Foreign Service Officer, dedicated primarily to U.S. relations with Europe. He was director of the State Department Press Office from 2014 to 2015, briefing the State Department press corps and managing the Department's engagement with U.S. print and electronic media. Jeff led the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was deputy chief of staff to the NATO Secretary General in Brussels. He also served in Berlin as minister-counselor for political affairs (2006–2009), his second tour of duty in Germany. His Washington assignments have included deputy director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs and duty officer in the White House Situation Room and State Department Operations Center.

Mr. Rathke was a Weinberg Fellow at Princeton University (2003–2004), winning the Master’s in Public Policy Prize. He also served at U.S. Embassies in Dublin, Moscow, and Riga, which he helped open after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Rathke has been awarded national honors by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as several State Department awards. He holds an M.P.P. degree from Princeton University and B.A. and B.S. degrees from Cornell University. He speaks German, Russian, and Latvian.