A telling anecdote during Angela Merkel’s recent trip to Washington captured the new tone in the American-German relationship. Over lunch and in jest, Donald Trump allegedly called the German chancellor “the president” of Europe. He then congratulated her for successfully “ripping off” successive US administrations on defense and trade.
Trump is the third US president Merkel has dealt with as chancellor. With George W. Bush and Barack Obama, she built close and trusting relationships. Trump, she knew, would be more difficult. Even so, what she experienced during her second visit to the Trump White House shocked her. The president showed no interest in listening to her. Instead, she received a dressing-down over perceived German wrongdoings.
Merkel has always been a committed trans-Atlanticist, leading a country that has been one of America’s closest allies and partners for decades. Since the end of World War II, (West) Germany’s success story was only possible because America was ready to protect and support the former enemy.
America played a key role in the founding of the Federal Republic in 1949, in its survival as a liberal democracy during the Cold War and in its reunification. The US also provided Germany with an environment in which it could prosper economically: a “liberal international order.”
The American idea for the relationship with Germany after unification was “partnership in leadership” (George H. W. Bush, May 1989). Germany was to become the key European partner for the US: A like-minded liberal country helping to steer the broader transatlantic relationship. Coordination between Bonn/Berlin and Washington, for example, was crucial for getting Central Europe into NATO and the EU.
There have been many ups and some downs in the partnership since. The lowest point came in 2003, with the public disagreement about the Iraq war. But the basic idea survived. The Obama administration came closest to “partnership in leadership,” especially in the joint diplomacy toward Russia during the Ukraine conflict.
George H.W. Bush's idea for the relationship with Germany was "partnership in leadership."
As one Obama adviser, Ben Rhodes, put it, Merkel “has been, I’d say, the President’s closest partner over the course of his entire presidency. She’s been there the entire time. They’ve worked together on almost every issue. They’ve developed a deep mutual respect, I think, and close friendship as well.”
Obama understood that Merkel was crucial to getting the EU on board for any major policy. And Germany’s “postmodern” approach to foreign policy — focusing on trade, law, and international institutions instead of “hard” geopolitics — was in tune with Obama’s own globalist instincts.
Now this relationship is in tatters. Trump prefers to attack Germany rhetorically. His main grievances are Germany’s trade surplus and its low defense spending. On both issues, he has half a point. The German economy is based on exports, which rely on a (US-guaranteed) liberal economic order. And Germany can afford to spend so little on defense only because it is part of NATO, which in turn is underwritten by the US.
These American criticisms of Germany actually predate the Trump era. But in the past, the points of agreement between the US and Germany have always eclipsed the areas of disagreement. This is the biggest change. The Trump administration shows no interest in working with Germany on any international problem. And Germany disapproves of almost all recent US foreign-policy moves. Without any joint agenda, the relationship is defined only by the areas of disagreement.
This is becoming increasingly clear the longer Trump is in office. His first national-security team still wanted to preserve the status quo by working with allies to protect the liberal international order against China and Russia. The Trump White House 2.0, by contrast, cares little for allies or international legitimacy. It disdains exactly those aspects in which Germany in the past has been useful to US administrations.
So Trump’s recent meeting with Merkel left no doubt: The current American president does not treat Germany as a partner. He views the relationship as an asymmetric arrangement between a master who is free from constraints and a client who has to obey his orders, or get punished.
Germany’s downgrade in Washington, incidentally, does not imply an upgrade for Britain or France. The US no longer has any “special relationship.” So Europeans should stop vying to become America’s new best friend. The body language between Trump and Macron may be warmer, but Trump is equally uninterested in advice from France.
At heart, the change comes out of Trump’s view of the the international system as consisting of “spheres of influence.” In this, Trump is closer to the traditions of Russia and China than to the principles of the liberal international order. The Trump presidency thus could amount to a revolution in trans-Atlantic relations: the end of a unique relationship which was born up after World War II and has evolved during the Cold War into America’s most important alliance network, often known as “the West.”
While Franco-German cooperation is important for the EU, it cannot replace the US in the region or world.
The Trump presidency will eventually end, of course. A different US president may then push the reset button. But while that next president may differ from Trump in tone, he or she may not differ much in substance. Any future US president will believe that the US bears too much of the burden of policing the global order, as do many American voters.
This means that Germany must hedge its bets. As Chancellor Merkel has warned several times, Germany can no longer expect America to automatically protect Europe. But how should Berlin adapt?
The obvious Plan B now in vogue is “Europe” as an alternative to the US. That idea is not new. Germans who resent the dependence on the US on the left, the right and in the center – have always looked for a European way out of US dominance. In practice, that has always meant relying on French leadership.
And France often enjoys presenting itself as an alternative to the US in Europe. But deep down Germans know that Paris cannot replace Washington. France cannot provide a similar security guarantee (which for Germany must include Central Europe). France cannot play leader in managing Russia and China. It certainly cannot guarantee a global system of free trade. While Franco-German cooperation is important for the EU, it cannot replace the US in the region or world.
Nor can Germany “go it alone.” An assertive, more nationalist Germany investing heavily in its army, perhaps even building its own nuclear deterrent and acting independently on the international scene, would quickly invite counter-coalitions in Europe. The old “German question” would be back on the table. And that would call into question the open borders and harmony within the EU, which is a major German foreign-policy interest.
That leaves Germany without clear strategic options. So Berlin will have to muddle through. It will have to keep appeasing the Trump administration, where possible. It will have to accept humiliations, and in effect a higher price for a relationship which is now transactional.
Simultaneously, Germany must strengthen its partnerships with France and Britain, as a way to build a stronger Europe in the world. Together with like-minded partners — fellow liberal democracies such as Japan, India, Mexico or Canada — the Europeans will have to protect the liberal world order from the likes of Russia and China.
And Germany must reduce its dependence on others by investing in its army, and by balancing exports with more investments at home.
Playing diplomatic defense won’t be enough. Germany needs to become more active on the international scene, as risks and rivalries heat up from the Middle East to East Asia. Germany must venture out of its “postmodern” comfort zone, while remaining globalist and liberal in character. In that sense, Trump presents an opportunity.
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