Geopolitics on the rocks

Matteo Garavoglia

Why Germany and the US are in for a troubled relationship

North America, Europe

Germany reacted to Donald Trump’s election with dismay. In the next years Berlin might be inclined by Washington’s lower profile to dominate European affairs even more. As German-American disagreements caused by Trump’s coming to power might spawn a reluctant hegemon.

For once, (also) a question of values

Now officially running for re-election in 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated President-elect Donald Trump with an elegant warning. "Germany and America are bound by common values: democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.

It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments” she said. Her Deputy Chancellor and likely opponent at the ballot box Sigmar Gabriel was more direct: “Donald Trump is the trailblazer of a new authoritarian and chauvinist international movement”, he lashed out.

Donald Trump succeeded where few did before: in uniting forces across the German political spectrum. Irrespectively of who will eventually win the federal elections in the fall of 2017 and when it comes to US-German relations, the mood across German politics is one of doom and gloom.

And yet, Given Donald Trump’s comments throughout the electoral campaign, it should come as no surprise that one specific political force did celebrate Mr. Trump’s victory. The rightwing and nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) rushed to congratulate the President-elect and heralded his victory as an omen of similar developments to come for Germany. Expect AfD to constantly refer to the Trump administration as its role model on a variety of issues. By doing so, the far-right will make President Trump even more toxic in the eyes of all other political parties.

The German foreign policy establishment across is also deeply troubled by the views put forward by a number of individuals set to take up key posts in the incoming administration. These ranged from overtly filo-Russian and apologetic of torture to seemingly unprepared to understand the subtleties of international relations. It is no exaggeration to report that, on more than one occasion, both German and American foreign policy wonks from both sides of the aisle repeatedly admitted having to search on Google to find out more about new appointees.

Foreign policy analysts in Washington and Berlin know each other extremely well, speak the same language, and share similar views. They now also share their fears toward the new Trump administration and the unknowns it brings along with it.

Public opinion and elite views are aligned for once. Recent polls suggest that over two-third of German citizens expect US-German relations to deteriorate under a Trump administration. Other polls suggest that, had they been given the right to vote in the US elections, only 4% of Germans would have voted for Donald Trump. There exists indeed a broad dislike of Donald Trump across German society that cuts across all socio-demographic groups and well beyond the most banal anti-American rhetoric. The views that candidate Trump expressed throughout the electoral campaign were seen as misogynous, xenophobic, racist, nationalist and ignorant by the overwhelming majority of Germans. Worse still, they represented everything that history thought them to abhor, reject and fight against. Even accounting for possibly more moderate language and policies once he will be in office, Donald Trump will find it impossible to fully repair the damage he already caused.

An evolving leadership role for the reluctant hegemon

Thanks to its position of strength as Europe’s largest economy and political heavyweight within the European Union, Germany has over the last decade increasingly been flexing its diplomatic muscle outside the Union’s borders. Following the Brexit referendum and Britain’s increased isolation within the European Union, strong and long-standing ties between Berlin and Washington were reinforced. So much so that talk of a new “special relationship” was heard more than once across the Atlantic. On the Eastern front, Germany entertains a deep and often ambiguous trade relationship with the Russian neighbour. Such economic interdependence allows Berlin to exercise more leverage on Moscow than any other European capital. Conversely, it also exposes Germany to accusations of appeasing irresponsible Russian behaviour. Something that Berlin has to deal with when engaging with its increasingly restive Polish partners.

Notwithstanding Germany’s more traditional diplomatic engagements, a relatively new feature of Germany’s diplomatic posture is a renewed focus on the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa. Leaving aside the long-standing and often challenging relationship with Ankara, Berlin has over the last couple of years dedicated increasing diplomatic attention to the eastern Maghreb and the Sahel. Conscious of the massive domestic repercussions that the mismanagement of the 2015 - 2016 migrant and refugee crisis had for her popularity, Merkel had to step up the country’s engagement in dealing with these challenges.

She was therefore a strong backer of the EU Trust Fund for Africa at the Valletta summit in late 2015. One year later, the Chancellor’s trip to Mali, Niger and Ethiopia as well as her hosting of Chad and Nigeria’s heads of state in October should be understood within the same framework. As it should also be interpreted the shift on greater aid conditionality with a focus on migration and security issues pushed by the EU on that very same month.

Partly stemming from its more assertive diplomatic posture, perhaps the most fascinating transformation that Germany is witnessing in terms of its international identity pertains to its military. To begin with, the new white paper on German security policy presents a degree of sophistication in terms of strategic thinking not seen in the past.

At the same time, both the number of troops and expenditure for the Bundeswher in the coming years are set to increase for the first time since the end of the Cold War. At around 35 billion Euros, we are still far from the approximately 60 billion Euros that would be required for Germany to reach the 2% NATO target, but a new trend is in motion.

Within this context, Germany is increasingly active on both its eastern and southern flanks. Luftwaffe Eurofighter Typhoons based in Estonia already patrol the Baltic states’ airspace and Germany is now reading to deploy up to 650 troops and heavy weaponry to lead a NATO battalion in Lithuania. At the same time, Berlin is arming and training Peshmerga fighters in Iraq and deploying up to 650 troops to Mali. All of this to loud cheers of approval from its NATO partners. This state of affairs would have been unthinkable in both domestic and international terms until a few years ago. When it comes to its military, a German paradigm shift is well under way.

Forecasting a more transactional relationship

With a Trump administration in place, the relationship between Berlin and Washington is set to change. The nature of this will significantly shift from a shared understanding of the values underpinning the global liberal order to a far more transactional one. Like it or not, the most powerful country in the world and the dominant power in Europe will have to work together. Four issues emerge as key areas for cooperation and, at times, disagreement between the two. First of all, Germany and the US will have to step up cooperation on intelligence. International terrorism, a bellicose Russia and cyber warfare demand it.

Both Germany and the US have no time to waste on this issue. Luckily, the working relationship between the intelligence communities on both sides of the Atlantic is deep and long-standing. This state of affairs should somehow help in managing the transition from the current to the future White House. The Trump administration will leverage its intelligence superiority and, in return for sharing its intelligence, it will demand greater German compliance with its demands.

Germany will find itself in a conundrum. On the one hand, it needs the unmatched intelligence capabilities that only the US can provide. On the other hand and due to historical reasons, its legislation is far more restrictive than America’s when it comes to data collection, privacy issues and mass surveillance. Expect a long domestic struggle to take place between those stressing the need to cooperate with America and those highlighting the importance of curbing the powers of intelligence agencies.

Next in line is trade. President-elect Donald Trump made no secret of its distaste for both existing and planned trade agreements. Yet, he also consistently advertised himself as a dealmaker. And no American businessman worthy of his name could afford not to do business with Europe’s powerhouse. While pandering to the rust belt constituencies that helped him get elected, President Trump will also want to be seen as a master of the global economy. In this respect, a three-pronged approach could be expected. First of all, Trump will throw a bone to his supporters by dumping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). As a second step, he will signal a less flexible foreign policy posture to Mexico by pushing for a (limited and mainly cosmetic) revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Finally and after having frozen them for most of his term in office, he will re-start negotiations “on his terms” with the European Union on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Unlike in the field of intelligence gathering, when it comes to trade the European Union is an equal of the United States. By this time, President Trump will better have established a working relationship with Berlin. Failing to do so will make it nearly impossible for Washington to achieve its objectives. Berlin and Washington will also have to find common ground on dealing with Eastern Europe and Russia. President-elect Trump has repeatedly signaled his intention to re-set America’s relationship with Russia. Indeed, he went as far as suggesting that the world should recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea as legitimate. In turn, Vladimir Putin and the Russian media have been staunch supporter of Trump throughout his electoral campaign and openly rejoiced for his ultimate victory.

Berlin, instead, has been very firm in his position toward Russia condemning what it sees as an illegal occupation of Crimea and the sponsoring of terrorist and military activities in the Donbass region. Germany is the driving force behind the Normandy Format talks (also involving France, Russia and Ukraine). It also plays a crucial role within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) when it comes to the work of the Trilateral Contact Group on Ukraine. And it is fundamental in keeping alive what is left of the Minsk II Protocol as well as rolling over the European Union’s sanctions toward Russia. President Trump could try to bypass Germany and strike a deal with Russia. But given the depth of the economic and trade relationships between Berlin and Moscow, a sustainable settlement will inevitably have to take into account German geopolitical and economic interests.

Last but certainly not least; Germany’s role within the European Union will significantly influence the relationship between the two sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, when Americans have to talk to Europeans, they first fly to Berlin. Only later an on their way back to Washington, they stop over in Brussels. However, in European Commission President Jean- Claude Juncker’s words, the challenge now is that “we must teach the President-elect what Europe is and how it works.”

Indeed, even intellectually sophisticated American foreign policy analysts have a rather rudimentary understanding of the dynamics underpinning the relationships between the European institutional triangle and the national capitals. An inexperienced and insular Trump administration will need a great deal of time and effort to “get” Europe. One common misunderstanding, for instance, revolves around the idea that “the German Chancellor can tell other European governments what to do”. This is a gross misconception.

While nobody underestimated Germany’s role as primus inter pares in Europe, the multi-layered governance mechanisms underpinning the functioning of the European Union rend such a modus operandi simply impossible. Berlin will always have an interest to play up its influence in Europe vis-à-vis the Americans. But Washington has to come to terms with the fact that, while Berlin is an indispensable interlocutor in Europe, it is not a sufficient one.


All main German political parties with the exception of the far-right view an incoming Trump administration with dismay and apprehension. Foreign policy experts as well as mass public opinion feel the same. Germany feels therefore obliged to increasingly take on the reluctant leadership role that its hegemonic economic, political, diplomatic and potentially military position trusts upon it.

Within this context and as the preeminent global and European powers respectively, America and Germany will have to agree on a shared strategic vision. One can therefore forecast a far more transactional relationship than the one witnessed with the Obama administration. Intelligence sharing, transatlantic trade, the Russia - Ukraine relationship and Germany’s leadership role within the European Union are the four key issues upon which the relationship will evolve.