Why you should care
Close partners for 60 years, Deutchland and America are being torn apart by President Trump’s rhetoric and policies.
An idea that was once unthinkable is, in the age of Trump, now beginning to seem like a sensible policy option: Should Germany acquire a nuclear bomb?
The answer is yes, according to Christian Hacke, one of Germany’s most distinguished political scientists. In an article for Die Welt am Sonntag in July, he said Germany was, “for the first time since 1949, without a U.S. nuclear umbrella.” He added: “In an extreme crisis [we] are defenseless! In the worst-case scenario, Germany can only rely on itself.”
Many in Berlin dismissed the piece as silly seasonal nonsense. But the anxiety it reflected is real enough. U.S. President Donald Trump’s furious attacks on Germany have sown panic in Berlin, calling into question alliances and allegiances that once seemed inviolable, and forcing a rethink of security arrangements that have underpinned Germany’s world view for more than 60 years.
“It is extremely unusual for Germany to be attacked so vociferously by an American president,” says Nils Schmid, the Social Democrats’ spokesman on foreign affairs. “The relationship of trust has been hugely damaged.”
Trump was in full Germany-bashing mode at July’s NATO summit. He said Germany was importing so much gas from Gazprom that it had become a “captive of Russia.” And when he assailed Europe’s $151 billion trade surplus with the U.S. and some countries’ failure to meet NATO spending targets, everyone in the room knew he meant Berlin. Germany has emerged as Trump’s favorite whipping boy, the epitome of all he dislikes about NATO, globalized trade and immigration. And his punching bag of choice is Angela Merkel, Germany’s long-serving chancellor.
Germany and its leadership are far from blameless.
Stephen Szabo, American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
But the most awkward aspect of the Trump campaign is that many of the things he says about Germany contain a grain of truth. Trump is not alone in attacking its relatively low spending on defense, its massive balance of payments surplus and its leading role in Nord Stream 2, a controversial new gas pipeline between Russia and Europe. These are all things that Berlin’s allies have been complaining about for years.
“When it comes to military spending, Trump has a point,” admits one senior German official.
Though his shots have been painful, Germany does seem to have dodged the biggest bullet. Last week’s agreement between Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, to call a truce in the looming transatlantic trade war averted the threat of U.S. tariffs on vehicle imports, a move that could have spelled disaster for the German car industry.
But that does not detract from the damage wreaked in other areas. Germans were furious when Trump repudiated the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, and imposed punitive tariffs on EU imports of steel and aluminum.
They also watched in horror as he intervened in the domestic debate about refugee policy, portraying Germany as a kind of post-migration dystopia that symbolized the perils of open borders. Merkel’s decision to let in a million refugees was “insane.” Crime in Germany, he said, erroneously, is “way up.”
“The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” he wrote on Twitter in June.
Many Germans shake their heads in amazement at such comments. But officials in Berlin are genuinely worried about the damage he is inflicting on Western institutions.
“He’s attacking a world order of which Germany is the foremost beneficiary,” says one. “Our economy is highly globalized, our politics is closely bound up with NATO and our security is tied to the U.S. And all those pillars are now being eroded.”
The new reality is painful for Merkel, a committed Atlanticist who has always had a strong affinity with America. “What we’ve taken for granted for decades, the idea that the U.S. is the global superpower, in good and bad times, is no longer so certain in the future,” she said in July. “We can’t simply rely on the U.S. to uphold the global order.”
Trump has never been particularly well disposed to Germany. In a Playboy interview in 1990 — which has become required reading for German officials — he said that if he were president, he’d “throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country.”
But it was on the U.S. presidential campaign trail in 2016 that his animosity toward Germany, and Merkel in particular, emerged in full view. After she was selected as Time’s person of the year in 2015, he said they had picked someone “who is ruining Germany.”
The first official encounter between the two was dominated by the issue of NATO burden-sharing. “He said to her, ‘You’re terrific, but you owe me a trillion dollars,’ ” recalls one German official.
From the start, diplomats speculated on the possible reasons for the poor chemistry between the two leaders. Some pointed the finger at her close relationship with his predecessor Barack Obama. Others say he was irritated by the way she was lionized by the U.S. media as the leader of the free world.
Still others put the blame on Merkel’s dry, unemotional style. “Some leaders have tried to charm him, to ingratiate themselves with him,” says one official. Merkel, a former physicist and daughter of a Protestant pastor, “just didn’t do that.”
The relationship wasn’t all bad. At their meeting in Washington in April, Trump took Merkel on a tour of his White House private quarters — an honor not bestowed on every visiting dignitary. The chancellor reciprocated with a 1705 map of the Palatinate region of Germany showing the town of Kallstadt, his ancestral home.
However, the main bone of contention still looms large — Trump’s complaint that Germany is free-riding on the security safeguards the U.S. provides.
“Germany and its leadership are far from blameless for this state of affairs,” Stephen Szabo, a senior fellow of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, recently wrote. “The Merkel governments have consistently underfunded defense.”
When Germany unified in 1990, its western part was spending close to 2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense and the Bundeswehr had the largest European military in NATO, with more than 400,000 soldiers. Today the budget makes up just 1.2 percent of GDP — well short of the 2 percent target it committed to work toward in 2014.
Meanwhile, the Bundeswehr is in a woeful state with serious equipment shortages. A parliamentary report in February found none of Germany’s six submarines were combat-ready and there were days when no single A400M transport aircraft was available for use.
“Combine this with soaring current accounts and trade and budget surpluses and Trump has a case [made by Obama as well] that Germans should seriously address,” says Szabo.
Meanwhile, Trump has shown little sympathy for the main dilemma for security policymakers in Berlin — German voters’ fundamental queasiness about projecting military power.
“Trump has to understand that for decades, stretching back to the ‘re-education’ phase after the war, the U.S. and other allies did everything they could to ensure that Germany was a pacifist country,” says Roderich Kiesewetter, an MP from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. “That’s the origin of our reluctance to use military force.”
Merkel has emphasized to Trump that Germany is spending a lot more than it used to. Although the military budget will be equivalent to only 1.5 percent of GDP in 2024, it will still be 80 percent higher than in 2014. The chancellor has also argued repeatedly in support of a higher defense budget.
“But the trouble is, Trump’s interventions make it much harder to convince people that we need to spend more,” one official says. “He’s really not helping.”
Germany has also tried to push back against another of Trump’s obsessions — the EU’s massive trade surplus with the U.S., of which Germany accounts for the lion’s share. Officials in Berlin say that if you throw in services, the surplus becomes a deficit. And anyway, they add, Germany is not to blame for making products, such as luxury cars, that the world wants to buy.
But Trump still has a point that Germany’s current account surplus is high. Last year it stood at 8 percent of GDP, way above the European Commission’s recommended upper level of 6 percent. Indeed, Brussels said last year that the surplus is “not healthy” for Germany and “creates significant economic and political distortion for the whole of the Eurozone.”
Germany’s finance ministry recently blamed the U.S. for the phenomenon. The recent tax reforms had increased American demand for German goods, it said. There was, it said in a statement, “no uniquely German policy that caused the surplus.”
Furthermore, Berlin says it has tried to deal with the issue by significantly raising public investment, which has lifted domestic demand. But IMF projections show the surplus is set to decline by only three quarters of a percentage point between now and 2023.
Trump is not the only ally to take Germany to task. In May, at a speech in Aachen, French President Emmanuel Macron said Berlin should desist from “constantly fetishizing budget and trade surpluses: They always arise at the expense of others.”
Then there is Nord Stream 2. During the NATO summit in Brussels, Trump asked why Germany was paying so much for gas from a country that the Western alliance is supposed to be protecting it from. Merkel has tried to address some U.S. concerns — for example, its fear that Nord Stream 2 will allow Russia to bypass Ukraine — but has failed to quell the critics.
A recent paper published by the Federal Academy for Security Policy, part of the German defense ministry, was devastating in its criticism of the pipeline. By “increasing rather than reducing dependence on Russian imported gas,” Nord Stream 2 was in conflict with EU policy on gas-supply diversification, wrote Frank Umbach, an energy expert at King’s College, London.
In addition, by allowing Russia to get round Ukraine and other transit countries such as Poland, it would deprive them of valuable gas transit fees while Germany became the central European hub for Russian gas. That would, he says, violate the principle of solidarity set out in the E.U.’s Lisbon treaty.
Germany has tried to shut its ears to Trump’s constant barbs and focus on the broader relationship. “The main thing is not to let ourselves be provoked,” says Schmid. “We know that our friendship with America is much more than our relationship to any given president. … Trump is not America.”
But with his criticism of Germany shared so widely in Washington — and by other allies too — some think that may be a pious hope.
Additional reporting by Demetri Sevastopulo in Washington
Man in the Middle: An Outspoken Ambassador Tries to Find His Place in Berlin
Just hours after presenting his credentials as the new U.S. ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell found himself in the eye of a storm. His boss, President Donald Trump, had decided to quit the Iran nuclear deal and Grenell tweeted that German companies doing business in Iran “should wind down operations immediately” or face U.S. sanctions.
There was an instant furor. Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the U.S., tweeted, “Ric, my advice, after a long ambassadorial career … never tell the host country what to do, if you want to stay out of trouble.”
The Trump administration’s first openly gay appointee, Grenell is an experienced Republican strategist who served as spokesman to the UN under President George W. Bush. His confirmation this April was long delayed due to opposition from Democrats, who objected to his tweets. Critics in Berlin began to view the ambassador as a mouthpiece for Trump rather than a representative of the U.S. “I don’t know that he really takes on board anything we say to him,” says one MP. “He just spouts propaganda.”
The Iran controversy had barely died down before Grenell gave an interview to Breitbart London. He said he wanted to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe” who were on the rise thanks to the “failed policies of the left” and described Sebastian Kurz, the right-wing Austrian chancellor, as a “rock star.” Berlin’s foreign ministry requested clarification of the remarks.
But German politicians who have recently spoken to him say he is beginning to behave like a more conventional ambassador. “The start was a bit bumpy, but now you really feel he’s trying to act as an intermediary,” says Roderich Kiesewetter, a senior MP from the CDU. “Increasingly. he’s trying to understand the German view of things but is also making clear what the U.S. demands of us.”
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