Setting the Stage for a U.S.-German Partnership Befitting the Twenty-First Century

Martina Timmermann

Martina Timmermann

Dr. Martina Timmermann was a DAAD/AICGS Research Fellow in 2014.

While at AICGS, Dr. Timmermann explored the potential and options for EU/German involvement as a mediator in East Asia. One of the major underlying currents impeding a sustainable solution of the several conflicts in the South and East China Sea has been the unsolved WWII history among Japan, China, and the Koreas. It is in this field of WWII reconciliation where Germany might play a particularly positive role. Still, would EU/German mediation be wanted by the various stakeholders involved? What would their expectations be? Dr. Timmermann interviewed key stakeholders in DC to gain a comprehensive and independent insight into their perceptions and expectations in order to develop a set of policy recommendations on how to proceed toward a solution with a peaceful win/win for all.

Dr. Timmermann did her research based on her professional experience at German, Japanese, and American universities and think tanks, the UN, and the corporate sector.

Since 2008, Dr. Timmermann has been Vice President for International Affairs at the Transition and Integration Management Agency (TIMA, established in 1996). TIMA is considered a vanguard consultancy that has made its mark in Euro-Asian business ventures and political projects where integrity, transparency, and ethics are vital for success.

Before joining the corporate sector, Dr. Timmermann served as Director of Studies on Human Rights and Ethics in the Peace and Governance Program at the United Nations University (UNU) Headquarters in Tokyo and as UNU Advisor at UNU-EHS (Environment and Human Security) in Bonn. In that capacity, Dr. Timmermann worked and published on issues of peace and governance, regionalization, public private partnership, sustainability, and human rights, with a continuous focus on Asia and Europe.

Prior to joining UNU, Dr. Timmermann directed a research project on regional identity-building in Southeast Asia and Japan. The project was awarded to her by the German Research Association (DFG) in 1999 and conducted at the Institute of Asian Affairs in Hamburg from 2000-2003. From 1994-1999, Dr. Timmermann was lecturer and assistant professor at the department for International Relations and Foreign Policy at the University of Trier with a focus on Japanese foreign policy. Throughout such years, she also served as president of the “Mittelbau” at the senate of the University of Trier.

In 1998, Dr. Timmermann received her doctorate degree from Ruhr-University Bochum for a study in comparative politics, titled The Power of Collective Thought Patterns: Values, Change and Political Culture in Japan and the United States of America (Leske & Budrich 2000, in German). Her PhD research, which she conducted at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo from 1993-1994 and at Harvard University’s U.S.-Japan Program and Reischauer Institute in summer 1995, was kindly funded by the Japanese-European Special Exchange Program (SEP), the so-called Takeshita-Initiative.

Some major publications related to Europe and Japan:
Martina Timmermann and Jitsuo Tsuchiyama, eds., Institutionalizing Northeast Asia: Regional Steps towards Global Governance, UNU Press 2008 (distr. by the Brookings Institution).

Martina Timmermann and Richard Higgott, “Institutionalizing East Asia: Learning lessons from Europe on regionalism, regionalization, identity and leadership”, in: Timmermann / Tsuchiyama, op.cit., pp…….

Martina Timmermann, “EU-Asian human rights policies: Pursuing the Path of Institutionalism”, in: Juergen Rueland’s ( volume Asian-European Relations: Building Blocks for Global Governance, Routledge 2008 (recommended by the library of the German parliament).

Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Barack Obama were right to pull the plug on the emotional debate over intelligence gathering and task their chiefs of staff, Peter Altmaier and Denis McDonough, with finding a solution to the conflict. This process will need time, thorough attention, and the willingness to embark on a long over-due remodel of the U.S.-German partnership into one befitting the twenty-first century.

Critical challenges facing the German-American relationship—in Ukraine and Russia, Iraq, Syria, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, and several countries in Africa—urgently need solutions. Overcoming them would be easier and mutually beneficial if Germany, the European Union, and the U.S. walked more closely side by side.

Such closer cooperation would be beneficial not only to conflicts in and around Europe, but also to a set of conflicts in East Asia that have the potential to exert a major global impact: the conflict between China, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and the conflict between China and Japan on the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.  The United States has been prodded by its allies in Asia-Pacific to serve as a mediator. Several American observers (like Jonathan Pollack[1] or Daniel Sneider[2]) have also argued for U.S. high-level shuttle diplomacy. Giving this a second thought, however, it is obvious that the United States as a direct stakeholder in the region, with its hands tied by its bilateral security treaties with both Japan and the Republic of Korea, could not really fill the role of an independent broker on this matter.  China, moreover, has already made clear that it will not accept any American role as a mediator in these conflicts.  The U.S. would therefore benefit from involving a trusted and reliable partner, such as the EU, whose reputation for credibility and integrity in peaceful multilateral conflict resolution is well known.

Still, although European economic interests would also be affected by conflicts in Asia, and especially when militaries are involved, these conflicts have not advanced to a center stage debate between the U.S. and Europe.  Instead, there seems to be a shared perception that conflicts occurring beyond Europe’s doorstep do not require European attention or, from an American perspective, do not require European involvement. This, however, would be a waste of precious political opportunity. Particularly in East Asia, all stakeholders would benefit from stronger U.S.-European cooperation resulting in a more constructive complementing of their experiences and soft and hard policy instruments.

For example, the unsolved history issue between Japan, China, and Korea is widely found to be one of the root causes for the stalling of other vital negotiations on climate change, nuclear disarmament, food, and energy security.  Here, Germany (under the EU flag) could take the lead and come in as a mediator on World War II history reconciliation. Germany, with its internationally recognized and respected war history reconciliation efforts, would certainly qualify for this job. Still, suggesting Germany as a trusted and reliable partner seems almost audacious given the most recent German-U.S. conflict on intelligence gathering and the roles of trust (as seen from the German side) and reliability (as perceived from the American side) in their partnership. The conflict on “spying on friends” is therefore not as silly, emotional, or over-the-top as several American observers seem to think. On the contrary, it has brought to light a lingering German discontent with the perspective, current structure, and running of this partnership. How deep German frustration goes is highlighted by the fact that the original debate on “spying on friends” has started to impact other highly relevant policy areas, most prominently the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  Any new joint U.S.-German/EU initiative may equally be overshadowed.

Going back to business as usual is therefore not an option. What is needed instead is the joint design of a remodeled strategic U.S.-German partnership with an enhanced quality of a “trusted partnership.” Such a partnership needs to address TTIP as well as determine a mutually acceptable agreement on intelligence sharing and a convincing vision of the future role of NATO and European defense policy.

To set the stage for this partnership and its sustainable success, it is important to understand how the other side “ticks.” And this, again, requires a closer look at current U.S. and German mindsets and mutual perceptions.

German Self-Perception as Loyal and Reliable

Intense debate about the quality of German-U.S. partnership and friendship has made headlines in both countries. For the first time, however, there is also grave concern and deep disappointment among dedicated transatlanticists who have worked tirelessly for the stability, viability, and longevity of the German-American partnership that emerged from the ashes of World War II. From such protagonists’ perspectives, the U.S. and Germany have been close partners—with the United States in the unquestioned lead. To those generations of transatlanticists who personally experienced the aftermath of German defeat in WWII and Germany’s Cold War security dependence, the long-term partnership model, with a clear role distribution and a primacy of U.S. policy interests, was a given. There was an accepted imbalance in this partnership with its pros and cons to each side. It is important to note, however, that generations of German players always perceived themselves and Germany as loyal partners of the United States.

With a new generation of political leaders coming of age—mostly in their 40s or younger—whose distance to the war years has grown, this attitude of following U.S. leadership without or with little open objection has changed.  This became especially obvious during the debates on Iraq and Libya. While more seasoned German foreign policy professionals in informal meetings expressed their deep frustrations over the decisions made by Germany’s then active foreign policy elite, the younger generations in charge considered such discussions as part of a healthy (and maybe mistakenly assumed balanced) relationship among friends who should be able to share what they think and allowed to disagree (for example, former foreign ministers Joschka Fischer and Guido Westerwelle at the Munich Security Conference on Iraq and on Libya, respectively).

Overall, however, and in spite of such spats, the majority of German political elites across all generations perceive themselves as loyal and reliable “friends” of the U.S., best demonstrated by their exceptional (considering German political and legal standards) military support of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and intelligence sharing following 9/11. Perceptions may vary, however.

U.S. Perception of Germany as Unreliable

In the United States, policymakers started doubting German reliability already in the 1980s (if not earlier during Willy Brandt’s “Ostpolitik” in the beginning of the 1970s), when the peace movement (Friedensbewegung) organized huge mass demonstrations in response to the deployment of the second generation of Pershing missiles in Germany. The long-practiced German policy of unconditionally following U.S. directions, and without public involvement, could no longer be upheld. The
German debates and decisions on Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 triggered American doubts regarding Germany’s reliability even further. Americans felt let down, a feeling that still today elicits often blunt comments on U.S. news shows, in government reports, and in think tank meetings. This is accompanied by U.S. suspicions of Germany being too close and too understanding with Russia and demonstrating a seemingly worrisome tendency to turn eastward at the cost of its longtime partner, the United States. Critical comments from Germany’s youth on U.S. politics are perceived and presented as proof of “increasing anti-Americanism.” Germany’s recent reluctance to support sanctions against Russia has further fed such doubts.

In contrast, German policymakers and analysts have been pointing to the fact that Russia is a close regional neighbor and needs to be dealt with accordingly; as former chancellor Helmut Schmidt once stated, “Russia will be in front of our doorsteps even in 300 years.” For this very reason, German foreign policy aims to contribute to stability and prosperity in Russia and Eastern Europe through strong economic interlinking and institutionalization. Such a long-term strategy has largely rested on the shoulders and activities of the German business sector, which explains why German (and other European) business elites have been unusually vocal (and active) during the U.S.-European debate on sanctions against Russia. To many of the business elite, until the MH17 tragedy, U.S. positions toward Russia seemed to be rooted in an outdated Cold War mindset that often hampered new initiatives for sustainably meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century.

U.S. and German Understanding of “Friends” and “Friendship”

The divergent perceptions of loyalty and reliability seem to be enhanced by a fundamental difference in German and American understanding of what “friends” are and what “friendship” means. Americans use the word “friend” quite easily, having met somebody only recently and turning to another person introducing the newcomer as a “friend,” for instance. To Germans, any reference to a friend elevates that person to a more exclusive level emphasizing a special level of appreciation, understanding, trust—and affection.  For this very reason, Germans very deliberately differentiate between “friends” and “acquaintances.”

Such differences in German and American understanding also reflect back on their use of “friendship.” Whereas friendship from an American point of view seems to mostly rest on a clear-cut cost-benefit equation in which any emotional components in such thinking are by-products, friendship in German understanding seems to put more emphasis on the emotional part. Old German sayings are revealing: “a true friend proves himself in bad times” or “a true friend helps without expecting anything in return.”

Applying this to the U.S.-German partnership, it is fair to say that it started with mutually shared interests in the aftermath of WWII. For almost fifty years, the U.S. and Germany cooperated closely, bound by their major shared interests in rebuilding the country and growing the economy while counterbalancing communism. Those Germans who were children at the end of the war in particular have fond memories of American GIs handing out chocolate and food parcels to their starving families. Such ties bind. The generations during the late 1980s and early 1990s bonded emotionally when they watched the Wall tumble and the divided country unite after former U.S. President George H.W. Bush had given full American support to a reunified Germany. For many Germans, this was the tipping point—a partnership that was originally built on shared interests changed into a friendship with trust, respect, and reliability.

The biographies and actions of the two current German leaders demonstrate that German-American friendship means more than just a cost-benefit equation: German Federal President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Joachim Gauck, a former pastor and proponent of civil liberties and human rights in East Germany, is widely known for his tireless support of the value of freedom; in fact, he does so in almost every speech he delivers.  He has done more than just talk, however. Before his time as president of the Federal Republic of Germany, he served as the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi records, the very place where victims of Stasi surveillance (and more) could look into their personal files—a weighty and emotional experience.

For her part, Chancellor Angela Merkel witnessed the Wall being built as a little girl in East Germany. She waited almost half of her life to see the Wall come down, freeing her and the people of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) from Stasi snooping and oppression. To the younger generation in political office these days—in and outside Germany—who have never been exposed to such restrictions and who take their civil liberties and human rights for granted, such overwhelming feelings of freedom, relief, and excitement about democratic opportunities are difficult to grasp. Both of these German leaders stand out in representing those millions of Germans, especially from East Germany, who dreamed of freedom and democracy. They expect these particular two leaders to be authentic and credible, and to live up to their original dreams and promises, showing their unfaltering position, integrity, and leadership on those principles.

Given ongoing political gridlock, internal bickering, and extreme partisan politics in the U.S., vital principles for democracy and international leadership seem still hard to believe in.  From an American perspective, the outlook is one of “no friends but only interests” and “no friendship but only a cost-benefit equation.” It was therefore no surprise that U.S. commentators assumed a hidden agenda behind Germany’s protest against intelligence gathering among friends.

There may even be some grain of truth in this. Germany (and Europe) has been struggling for more U.S. attention and respect since the new generation in the U.S. government embraced the so-called pivot to Asia. This was a wake-up call to Europe and Germany: their ongoing security partnership was up for discussion and needed not only rethinking, but also sound remodeling toward greater burden-sharing. This perspective was a rational cost-benefit calculation, albeit obviously not well-liked on the European side of the Atlantic. Life had been quite comfortable under the American security umbrella. The debates on the development of NATO and a European defense policy are still ongoing and waiting for a mutually satisfactory solution.

In the process of doing a cost-benefit equation and searching for the right balance within the desired multilateral and bilateral partnership structures, it is advisable to remember one unique and pertinent factor: The German understanding of the U.S.-German partnership (aka friendship) is based on sincere appreciation of and gratitude for U.S. support of German unification. Thus, for better or worse, there is an emotional aspect to be taken into consideration when weighing the costs and benefits of this partnership for the future. It has taken seventy years and many defining experiences to build an unusual level of trust, loyalty, and integrity in their friendship. Such a rare treasure in international politics should not be wasted with unnecessarily blunt comments depicting Germany as an unreliable alliance partner.[3]

Such aggressive communication, coupled with the prior U.S. rejection of Germany into the illustrious Five-Eyes club of intelligence sharing (including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S.), and followed by the American refusal to sign a bilateral “no-spy agreement,” was felt as an insult by many committed partners in Germany. Could it be more obvious that there was no U.S. trust in Germany—after all Germany had done in almost seventy years of partnership?

Heading Toward a New, Quality U.S.-German “Trusted Partnership”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, in a recent exchange with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, once again emphasized the importance of the U.S.-German partnership. This was encouraging, but is it enough to satisfy the German public and their elected politicians, whose support will be essential for any new and joint U.S.-German partnership project in the future?

What is needed is a remodeling of the long partnership into a higher quality U.S.-German “trusted partnership” befitting the challenges of the twenty-first century.  Such new partnership needs a more balanced give and take, resting on shared interests but also coupled with a sound rethinking of the current patterns of behavior and communication between the partners. This requires the long-requested clear-cut definition of German foreign policy interests, but it also requires U.S. policymakers to rethink their own approach toward this partnership.

Beyond traditional strategy development, however, such a trusted partnership approach should build on the unique level of friendship, integrity, and loyalty fostered over almost seventy years. It should more strongly emphasize the value of mutual respect and have the courage and wisdom to throw overboard outdated patterns of Cold War thinking, communication, and behavior. This way, there will be new room, confidence, and enthusiasm for joint political approaches on a global level, such as a U.S.-European initiative for reconciliation in East Asia.

Dr. Martina Timmermann, Vice President for International Affairs at the Transition and Integration Management Agency, is a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow at AGI in August and September 2014.

[1] Jonathan D. Pollack and Jeffrey A. Bader, “Return to the Asia Rebalance,” The Brookings Institution, 23 January 2014, (5 August 2014).

[2] Daniel Sneider, “Japan-Korea Relations: Time for U.S. Intervention?” NBR Analysis, 6 January 2014, (5 August 2014).

[3] “Is Germany overreacting to allegations of U.S. espionage?” PBS Newshour, 10 July 2014, (5 August 2014).

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.