Germany Must Again Live Up to Its Role as the United States’ Partner

October 11, 2021
7 min read
Photo credit: klauscook /
In evaluating the results of the German elections, one might think of two famous quotes that seem relevant.

One is from the novel by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” The other is from Jean-Baptiste Karr: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Change and continuity in tension would appear to be the case now in Germany. 

How much change and how much continuity were Germans choosing on September 26? After sixteen years of government by the Christian Democrats, it would appear that change may be coming in a new coalition without Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. And yet, if the Social Democrats’ leader Olaf Scholz is her successor, Germany will have a chancellor who was vice chancellor in one coalition with Merkel and minister for labor and social affairs in another. That suggests continuity. In fact, Scholz campaigned on projecting an image of stability and continuity intentionally resembling Merkel’s image. 

Change is perhaps that much more visible in the probable entry of The Greens in government with the Social Democrats and the Free Democrats if a three-way coalition can be forged. But even if this coalition does not happen, a coalition of the Christian Democrats and their sister party, the Christian Social Union, with The Greens and the Free Democrats would also provide a mix of change and continuity. 

German voters have set up conditions for a multiparty coalition that has not been seen in decades in the federal government but they represent the wishes of a country that appears to be as multifaceted as the political parties. That includes now seven parties represented in the parliament including on the far-left and far-right, both of which are marginal but also reflective of the changing political tapestry of Germany.

Seen from outside the country, the future of Germany’s challenges and choices represents opportunities as well as obstacles. The potential coalition partners have all affirmed their focus on Europe and the need to work closely with Germany’s partners in enabling the European Union to meet its challenges in dealing with the coronavirus, climate change, and coherence in economic policies. Yet there will continue to be friction among the parties not only concerning domestic priorities but also generated by challenges in euro reforms, dealing with immigration issues, and how to confront the post-Brexit centrifugal forces within the EU such as the policy conflicts with EU members such Poland and Hungary.

There will also be struggles in dealing with the rather fuzzy notion of strategic sovereignty in terms of the capacities of Germany and Europe to defend themselves by pooling resources and capabilities. That remains very much a work in progress and a continuing challenge for transatlantic relations. The potential coalition partners have affirmed their stance on sustaining partnership within the transatlantic framework. While traditional engagement in NATO is not being questioned, there are still issues that will continue to be debated within Germany and within NATO concerning defense budgets, the role of nuclear sharing, the use of drones, and the question of military engagement in the global arena. The next government will also face the challenges China represents as a major economic partner while also a rival and an authoritarian system. There will be similar questions around relations with Russia, which is going to test the mettle of Europe’s solidarity in the face of Vladimir’s Putin’s efforts to divide it. 

A particular challenge for Germany is in its understanding of its role as the most influential country in Europe at a moment when the global environment is hardening. 

A particular challenge for Germany is in its understanding of its role as the most influential country in Europe at a moment when the global environment is hardening. The debate in Germany is going to require rethinking what its political rationales are in terms of explaining not only what it says but what it will be prepared to do when it comes to making hard decisions in response. 

Some have argued that Germany is quite capable of making decisions in its own interests but cloaking them in a European framework. A recent example would be the decision to complete the Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite widespread criticism in Europe and in the United States. The euro crisis a decade ago brought similar dissension to the surface. But making hard decisions in the global arena in a world shaped by a rising China, an aggressive Russia, and a United States focusing increasingly on the Pacific region will accompany expectations about where Germany stands on global challenges, not just those concerning itself or in Europe. That topic received very little attention in the election campaigns of all the main parties but will be unavoidable for the next coalition government.

With regard to German-American relations, there is currently an enormous amount of blowback in Berlin following the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan. Accusations about the absence of consultation are widespread in political circles as is disappointment with Joe Biden, who appears to some Germans to be following a somewhat similar path to his predecessor in an America First mode. Biden’s call for a common front of democracies against authoritarians looks to others like a remake of a Cold War paradigm. At the moment there is a substantial level of uncertainty among Germans about the reliability of U.S. foreign policy, especially with an eye on the continued influence of former President Donald Trump, who is trying to remain on the political stage, and the dysfunctional pattern of decision making in a very polarized Congress. 

There is no doubt that the United States’ debate about its global role is of central importance not only for Americans but for the entire world and particularly Europe.

There is no doubt that the United States’ debate about its global role is of central importance not only for Americans but for the entire world and particularly Europe. The clash is between those who want the United States to exercise restraint in its global engagements and those who maintain that it must sustain its global leadership and partnerships in its own interests and those of its alliance partners. That debate did not start with Donald Trump and it is going to be a central part of the domestic fabric of the country for years to come as it is inextricably part of the domestic political environment. 

President Biden represents the view that the United States must be engaged with its partners in a world in which it plays a leading role as in past decades. That view is being challenged primarily by China and how this unfolds over the next few decades will determine the shape of the global community. Biden has made it clear that he sees Germany as a key partner, exemplified by his decision to give it a pass on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in return for engagement in dealing with China as well as Russia. 

Neither Germany nor Europe can avoid being engaged in this struggle, nor can they currently achieve security independence from the United States. In addition, solving the complicated web of economic dependencies, digitalization, and global competition requires more cooperation than ever before. And Europe with its economic weight has much influence in meeting those challenges. And Germany’s weight is of central importance.

These challenges will require that the United States understands how much more it needs its alliances in order to preserve the rules-based order of international relations built over the past seven decades. Germany, along with its European partners, can help sustain that effort by being engaged with the United States as a partner and demonstrating the mutual value of that interdependence. 

In 2014 there was a great deal of discussion about Germany’s leadership in a Europe in which the country had long prospered and become powerful. Such a discussion will need to be widened now to deal with the challenges Germans and Europeans face in a global environment in which the interests and values of all those who share them need to be protected, be it in Europe or elsewhere. 

As Lampedusa suggests, in order to sustain continuity in the future, a lot of things have to change. The question is how much change the German public will support in the domestic context as well as in foreign policy, even as both are closely intertwined. The next government will be responsible for the answer. 

A version of this article was first published by The European on October 7, 2021, under the headline “Deutschland muss seiner Rolle als Partner Amerikas wieder gerecht warden.”