Germany's 5G Debate Ought Not to be Referendum on Donald Trump
Chancellor Angela Merkel can’t seem to make up her mind. For months, her administration, the Germany Parliament, and outside experts have been debating whether to rely on high-risk vendors for the construction of the country’s 5G telecommunications networks. Unfortunately, this important debate keeps getting sidetracked. Because the Trump administration is using another one of its ill-conceived “maximum pressure” campaigns to persuade Germany to ban Huawei, this debate has morphed into a black and white choice between the United States and China. Which country do Germans trust more? Which relationship do Germans value more? With roughly three in four Germans stating that they don’t have confidence in Donald Trump, it doesn’t feel like the U.S. side is positioned to win. But that’s not the point, or it shouldn’t be. Germany’s 5G debate ought not be framed as a referendum on Donald Trump.
At its core, this is a debate about German values and German security as Chancellor Merkel decides whether she wants to continue relying on a Chinese telecom company that China could use for espionage or coercive purposes. The great irony here is that while the Trump administration clearly has strong views on the matter, the United States isn’t promoting an alternative vendor. It doesn’t have one. Europe is home to two of the alternative vendors (and Merkel will meet both of their CEOs this week), and South Korea is home to another. Those facts seem to be getting lost in all the noise — threats from the American side, threats from the Chinese side, and stories in the German press questioning the trustworthiness of Silicon Valley, the U.S. government, and those in Germany that support the U.S. position. To be sure, it is hard to isolate the German debates on 5G from the ailing transatlantic relationship or this week’s revelations about the Swiss encryption firm that was secretly owned by both the CIA and the BND for decades. (To many Germans, this story reinforces the view that American intelligence agencies are around every corner and not to be trusted despite the fact that Germany itself was reportedly a key beneficiary of the operation.) But it is critical that Berlin tune out the noise, hear from other voices, and focus on the fundamentals.