Their darkest hour

US-loving Germans planning life without trans-Atlantic ties

Nato-Gipfel
An ocean between them. Source: DPA

A few months ago, Friedrich Merz met with the former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, for lunch in New York. The pair agreed on a sad but simple fact: The era of German and American partnership is probably over.

It’s a painful new reality for Mr. Merz, once a senior figure in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic party. For the past nine years, he has led the Atlantik-Brücke (translation: Atlantic Bridge), an elite non-profit set up in 1952, in the era of Germany’s first post-war chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and the ongoing Allied occupation of Germany. The goal was to foster German-American understanding and “trans-Atlanticism.” The organization came to believe that a good relationship between the US, Canada and Europe is essential to the security and prosperity of the liberal Western-world order.

Which is why the diplomatic era ushered in by the election of US President Donald Trump has been particularly depressing for dedicated trans-Atlanticists like Mr. Merz and Mr. Kissinger. At their lunch date, the men agreed that trans-Atlantic relations were the worst they had been in decades. In fact, it seemed to them, this was the end of the Western world as they had known it. As they saw it, the G7 summit, the NATO meeting this week, Mr. Trump’s planned meeting with Mr. Putin — all of these were just opening acts for the finale of a grand tragedy: The end of the trans-Atlantic era.

“The Europeans must act together, and they must do it quickly,” Mr. Merz concluded in a speech he gave to senior politicians back in Germany.

Keep calm and carry on

The Atlantic Bridge is an invite-only organization that counts Germany’s most senior politicians and influential businesspeople among its 500 members. And none of them appear to be feeling positive about the Trump effect.

“If there is anything good that we can say about Trump, it’s this: He’s been a wake-up call for Europe,” said Peter Beyer, a member of the organization and of Ms. Merkel’s CDU party. “We have to stick together now.”

Even so, it’s important to avoid escalation and to keep pushing for mutually beneficial agreements, said Mr. Beyer, who is also the recently appointed coordinator for trans-Atlantic cooperation at the German foreign ministry. In Washington earlier this year, he held dozens of meetings and said he found the atmosphere friendly.

That is the kind of advice you keep hearing from Germany’s dedicated trans-Atlanticists: Keep calm, stay on good terms with contacts outside the White House, make sensible suggestions. Hope, they say, is always the last thing to die.

Now who's the leader of the free world, Donald? Awkward in Canada, June 2018. Source: DPA
I can't believe he just said that Disbelief in Washington, March 2017. Source: Reuters
Pretending you didn't just say that Uncomfortable in Italy, May 2017. Source: DPA
What is he going on about now? Discommodius in Canada, June 2018. Source: AP
Just going to take a little step... away A man apart in Canada, May 2018. Source: DPA

“We just hope that the European reaction to this situation doesn’t get worse,” said Frank Sportolari, who heads the multinational delivery and supply chain management company, UPS. He is also the president of AmCham, the American-German Chamber of Commerce. The EU shouldn’t “pour petrol on the fire,” Mr. Sportolari said.

But can that hopeful attitude last much longer? Steven Sokol, president of the American Council on Germany, is not so sure. “In 70 years of friendship, there were ups and downs and differences of opinion, but there was always an agreement on the end goals.” Still, these are “the darkest hours in the trans-Atlantic relationship,” said Mr. Sokol, whose organization is the Atlantic Bridge’s counterpart in New York.

‘Unexpected consequences’

Mr. Sokol was recently in Germany, trying to explain his country to the Germans again, despite everything. It wasn’t an easy trip. “I didn’t want to whitewash things,” he noted. But he did want to make it clear that Mr. Trump did not represent all Americans. “That’s why it’s very important to build other friendships and relationships, outside of official channels.”

Even that is getting harder these days: With every poison Tweet, every undiplomatic criticism and each bit of praise for autocratic leaders, convincing the Germans to care about their trans-Atlantic pals gets more difficult. This will have “unexpected consequences” for the US, too, Mr. Sokol believes. The more Germany focuses on German interests, the less influence the US will have here.

Just like Mr. Merz and the German trans-Atlanticists, Mr. Sokol is hoping that maintaining alliances outside of established power structures in Washington and Berlin won’t have to last forever. Mr. Trump won’t, they all clearly hope, be in office for long enough to permanently scar the Western world order that they are so fond of. Mr. Sokol — optimistic in just the way that Germans think Americans should be — says that whenever Mr. Trump is gone, the good America “will still be here.”

This article first appeared on the website of the business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt Global. Max Haerder is the deputy head of WirtschaftsWoche’s Berlin office, Simon Book is a reporter with the magazine and Elisabeth Niejahr is chief reporter at WirtschaftsWoche. This story was adapted by Cathrin Schaer for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: elisabeth.niejahr@wiwo.de,  max.haerder@wiwo.de, s.book@vhb.de

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