Wunderbar together?

This is Part I of a two-part series on challenges of the transatlantic partnership.
Part II will be published next week.

The Körber Stiftung has recently published the results of its 2018 survey on attitudes towards foreign policy by the German and American publics.
Two sets of numbers are particularly thought-provoking, if not outright concerning. On the one hand, the majority of Germans would like to see less cooperation with the United States (47% favouring less and 41% favouring more) in the future, while an overwhelming majority of Americans (70% to 21%) prefer to see more cooperation with Germany in the coming years. Even more significantly, while 58% of Americans evaluate the transatlantic relationship as “somewhat good”, 63% of Germans view it as “somewhat bad”, an 11% increase on the previous year. Though one should always be aware of the real significance of such polls (which in the short term is not much), the trends of perception clearly point in different directions, with potentially serious consequences for the long-term future of the German-American relationship.

How can these widely diverging attitudes of the two countries in relation to each other be explained? The answer to this question lies as much in the past as in the present. 

Old Friends..

Donald Trump’s presidency has by no means been a source of unequivocal support for the transatlantic relationship, as he has appeared to call key institutions of American-European cooperation, such as free trade and NATO into question and on more than one occasion has thundered against America’s friends and allies on the continent. He and his ambassadors have also displayed scant appreciation of key European interests, as for example with regard to the nuclear deal with Iran, while threatening sanctions if Germany pursued projects such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. In this light, Germans have a right to be wary of the current administration and a shift in public opinion is hardly unsurprising. However, there is a need to appreciate the bigger context. On the one hand, German interests are not only at odds with the American, but also with the position of many European states in the case of Nord Stream 2 – by far not the only example.

In addition, one thing that cannot be stressed often enough is that Trump is neither the sole representative, nor arbiter of public opinion. If anything, the Körber Foundation’s own numbers reinforce the impression. Despite the President’s rhetoric, favourable perceptions of Germany persist in the United States. The Trump Presidency therefore should not be an indication of a fundamental or irreversible shift in the foreign policy of the U.S., as some have implied, notably Merkel and the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas. In addition, many of the supposedly “unprecedented” phenomena of the Trump era, such as calling NATO into question, have been a persistent feature of the transatlantic relationship ever since Eisenhower threatened Europe with an “agonising reappraisal” of the American commitment to the alliance. 

..or new Opponents?

Then there are the Germans. The two decades before Trump’s ascendancy have already given the public numerous reasons to be wary of American behaviour on the international stage, as reflected in the German response to the war in Iraq in 2003 and revelations that the NSA has been tapping the German Chancellery for decades, as well as wiretapping and listening to the German Chancellor’s phone calls. Historically too, relations have often been impacted by negative German perceptions of American behaviour abroad or in Europe, as evidenced in the protests against the Vietnam war and NATO’s double-track decision in response to a Soviet build-up of arms on the European continent. In addition, there is a clear thread of anti-Americanism running through the German media, as noted by an academic study and an excellent case-study analysis of Der Spiegel in The Atlantic. The fact that anti-American propaganda was a daily feature of life in the GDR, now reunited with the Federal Republic, is likely to add to the negative perceptions of the U.S. in Germany.

There are however voices who continue to advocate for the transatlantic relationship in Germany. In an appeal written by prominent German public figures to the government in 2017, the case was (convincingly) made that in order to be an effective actor in Europe, Germany needs the United States:

“If the ties to the United States are cut… with them go the reassurance that other European countries need in order to accept a strong Germany in the center of the continent.”

Since German politicians like to talk about Europe almost obsessively, this warning is a crucial one. Even more importantly, numerous European states see the United States as a better guarantor of their security than Germany or ‘Europe’, which lacks the cash and willingness to replace America’s security umbrella. If the Germans want to preserve European unity, they will need to acknowledge and embrace the strong currents of transatlanticism across the continent. 

Despite all of these challenges and tensions mentioned, the German and American governments have continued to work together for more than 70 years since the end of WWII to ensure the mutual security and prosperity of both countries. This should not be lightly forgotten by either side, but especially the Germans, who according to the survey favour a reconfiguration of German foreign policy priorities towards the East.
This is perhaps the most concerning trend of all.

In Part II, Imre will discuss how German Ostpolitik might impact the future of transatlantic relations.

Image Source: Flags of the United States of America and the Federal Republic of Germany. Picture Alliance. Creative Commons 1.0.

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