Berlin Cable

Oct 01, 2020

Hoping for Joe

Germany has become dangerously cavalier when it comes to the country’s vital relationship with the United States.

Joe Biden and Angela Merkel
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Remember Germany’s Amerika-Strategie? You can be forgiven if you don’t. The “America strategy” was all the rage at the German Foreign Office and various think tanks just after the election of Donald Trump. A US president who did not automatically declare his undying friendship with Germany and his deep commitment to the transatlantic partnership but instead called NATO “obsolete” and was openly hostile to Europe’s most powerful country—that proved such an out-of-body experience for Germany’s political establishment that Berlin suddenly realized it never had much of an approach to the United States. Since the end of World War II, that had been taken care of, more or less, by Washington.

With Trump in the White House, some thinking started. Germany should be keeping close links to those in the Trump administration and in the US Congress who disagreed with the president; it should be building alliances on federal state-level, in particular when it came to climate protection; and how about intensified cultural exchanges? At times, however, the process seemed to be turning into thinking up an Anti-Amerika-Strategie. The question of how to possibly break the US’ primacy in the global financial system became at one point an all-consuming concern.

A Five-Point Plan

Finally, in summer 2018, there emerged a somewhat underwhelming five-point plan, announced by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Rather than signaling a concerted effort to keep the relationship close despite Trump, it set Germany on a path of quite significant political distancing. “The response to America First is Europe United,” Maas declared, even talking of Europe becoming a “counterweight” to the US (this was later played down). Greater investments in Europe’s defense capabilities, the willingness to “becoming more independent,” and going one’s own way in international affairs (e.g. trying to save the Iran nuclear agreement), the building of new international networks” (e.g. the alliance for multilateralism) to which the US was expressly invited (“The door is wide open,” Maas stressed generously) was rounded off with the somewhat unambitious-sounding promise to “keep communication channels open,” part of which became the “Deutschlandjahr” campaign in the US in 2018-19.

By now, however, the German America strategy has basically boiled down to a single point: keeping all fingers firmly crossed for a Democratic win on November 3. Chancellor Angela Merkel seems no longer willing to hide her exasperation and disdain for the US president whose chosen ambassador, Richard Grenell, during his 25 months stint in Berlin never tired of setting new lows with regard to how to behave as a US diplomat. Merkel went so far as to sabotage Trump’s G7 summit plans this summer. A victorious Joe Biden would bring back the allegedly good old times, or at least some of it, or so the thinking goes. The consequences of another Trump win are simply too dire to seriously consider.

Alarming Signs

Unsurprisingly, this approach isn’t working terribly well. In fact, signs that a dramatic change is afoot in the US-Germany relationship are popping up at an alarming rate, but are largely ignored here in Berlin. The latest example is a deeply concerning survey conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in September on American attitudes to US foreign policy. While on the face of it the American public gave, from a Berlin point-of-view, all the right answers—there are clear majorities for a US return to the Paris climate agreement, for instance, and 73 percent of Americans support maintaining or increasing the US commitment to NATO—there was a lot of bad news for Germany in the smaller print.

More than half of Americans, for instance, support the decision that the Trump administration announced in July to sharply decrease US troop presence from Germany (57 percent), with an additional 16 percent backing the idea that all troops should be withdrawn from Germany. “This could suggest that President Trump’s repeated criticism of Germany may have started to resonate publicly,” the authors noted cautiously. It certainly looks this way. Among Democratic voters, nearly a third approve of the decision (29 percent), and more than a third would support even further cuts or complete withdrawal (36 percent).

“Ami Go Home”?

The troops withdrawal question is one of the many Berlin is banking on its “Hoping for Joe” approach. With “Ami Go Home” choruses from Vietnam War and peace movement days still resonating in parts of the German public and political establishment, the decision, which is quite hurtful for the bilateral relationship, was played down strongly. A Biden administration would put this on hold, possibly as part of a Global Posture Review, and likely not follow through.

But that is, at best, wishful thinking and speaks of the poverty of the German approach. In fact, there’s been a lamentable lack of honesty—and creativity—in Berlin when it comes to US-German relations. “There are a number of designated transatlantic institutions doing some designated thinking,” one American observer who used to work for the Obama administration told me. “Also, party spokespersons pay lip service to the transatlantic relationship but rarely take their convictions to their parties at large.”  

In the case of a Biden win, there will be no honeymoon period in US-German relations, with the Americans continuing to ask their German counterparts hard questions (if possibly in a more polite and less impulsive way). “What is Germany willing to offer on questions that deeply matter to the US,” my interlocutor asked, “be it Nord Stream 2 [the gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany that is almost completed, but seen by Washington as increasing Europe’s dependency on Moscow] or defense spending?”

This is indeed the question—what kind of political offers will the German government have ready for the next US administration? Has it even realized that these are badly needed? (Recent media reports about a German offer to subsidize the building of two liquid natural gas ports at Germany’s North Sea coast to the tune of €1 billion in return for not imposing sanctions on Nord Stream 2 suggest it has, if somewhat imperfectly.) Is it aware that no relationship, not even one that has grown and prospered over 75 years and is crucial for Germany’s security and economy, can be presumed to be run on autopilot or in a cavalier fashion?

Only five weeks remain to come up with some answers and prepare a German public left in the dangerous belief that the relationship with the US, especially when it is led by a deeply incompetent and malign president, isn’t really that important.

Henning Hoff is executive editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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