How Domestic Politics Drives the German-US Relationship

February 17, 2022
In the fall of 2021, two Helmut Schmidt Fellows of the German Marshall Fund—one from Germany and the other from the United States—traded places to research aspects of the US-German relationship.

The fellowship was created in memory of the chancellor who led West Germany through some of the most trying times of the Cold War. Here they share their thoughts on what is standing in the way of the German-US relationship and what will have to be resolved for transatlantic relations to fulfill their potential in the 21st century.    

The Endurance of German Positions

By Scott Cullinane

When I arrived in Berlin, shortly after the elections last September, the political contrast with Washington was stark. While the January 6 Capitol insurrection and Republican aspersions on President Joe Biden’s legitimacy soured US politics, Germany’s elections were a study in contrasts.

Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down after 16 years in power, just days short of surpassing the tenure of her one-time political patron Helmut Kohl. Merkel handed power over to Olaf Scholz with characteristic humility. The two exchanged smiles and friendly gestures that have become rare in US politics. 

Though moving from 16 years of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) control to a revived Social Democratic Party (SPD) leading an unprecedented three-party coalition may appear to be a significant transition, those hoping for massive changes have been disappointed so far. Despite the reversal in fortunes between the CDU and the SPD, no candidate for chancellor represented as much continuity with Merkel as Scholz. His SPD was Merkel’s coalition partner for much of her tenure and he served as finance minister in her last cabinet.

Merkel was not just displaying her own style but also maintaining widely held German stances.

Many American observers, including me, had hoped that the new coalition government, especially with the influence of more strategic-minded elements of the Greens party, would bring about a decisive break with past German policies on energy, particularly the controversial Russo-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline, on relations with Russia and China, or even on leadership within the European Union. But the government has mostly struck a tone of continuity instead, emphasizing dialogue, the benefits of economic ties, and falling back on strategic ambiguity to avoid specific public commitments.

Merkel came to personify a specific style of German politics, marked by cautiousness, consensus, and calmness. It has become clear that in doing so, she was not just displaying her own style but also maintaining widely held German stances—what have been considered Merkel positions must now be recognized as a continuation of long-held German ones.

This poses some serious and uncomfortable questions for supporters of the German-US relationship in Washington to find a path forward. If the coalition government cannot lead Germany to accept that hard power has a role to play in foreign policy or that economic interests must be tempered by strategic concerns, then questions about the country’s reliability will continue bedevil the relationship.

The United States’ Dangerous Track

By Markus Ziener

It had been nine years since I was last in Washington when I met my friend Ben at a nice diner on 17th Street one night in September. We tried to catch up on everything that had happened in the past years. One statement of his summed it all up: “For me,” he said, “2020 was much worse than 2016.” He explained that “in 2020 people knew what they were doing. Still 47 percent of Americans voted for Donald Trump. This was no accident anymore.” 

This statement never left me during my time in Washington. In my many talks, one question regularly came up. Why did so many people vote again for a man who represents the opposite of what the United States used to stand for, namely openness, liberalism, pluralism, honesty, and the opportunity for a second chance? Those characteristics had laid the foundations for the great affection I developed for the country many years back. But from 2017 on, I witnessed these values being tread upon, culminating in the events of January 6, 2021.

This unprocessed recent past hangs over the United States like a demon. Politicians, observers, and academics are trying to make sense of this downward spiral. They talk about a broken system in Washington, a dysfunctional Congress playing by long-outdated rules, a constitution that urgently needs an update, a vitriolic media environment that deepens the rifts in society, and social media that feeds the psychological construct of confirmation bias in which people only want to hear what they like and dismiss anything else as fabricated or fake.

This unprocessed recent past hangs over the United States like a demon.

While this phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States, there it is exceptional in its sheer scale. The readiness of citizens to distrust the media and the other political side seems to be much bigger than in Germany. “In the United State,” one American pollster told me, “fake news from foreign countries like China and Russia have less of an impact than in Germany. Why? Because we already produced the rift in society ourselves.”

Nobody I talked to offered a remedy to these problems. Under President Joe Biden there is what could be called social engineering: billions of dollars to invest in roads, hospitals, education, or fighting climate change. There are also efforts to correct gerrymandering or legislative dead ends like the filibuster.

This is all good and needed. But a large part of society does not appear to be at heart aware of the dangerous track it is on or that the traits that have made the country so attractive are in tremendous jeopardy. While the supporters of Donald Trump in general seem not to care much about the cohesion of society, parts of the left want to push the country away from the center, making it extremely difficult to find common ground.

There are so many red flags. If the United States continues down the road of division and rancor, it may no longer be able to find its way back. Arriving at this point of recognition does not take billions of dollars. It takes less emotion, more rationalism, and a continually growing self-awareness. The United States is desperately needed as bulwark against an authoritarianism that is on the rise globally.

The Way Forward

By Scott Cullinane and Markus Ziener

Having traded places across the Atlantic, it became strikingly clear to us that German-US relations live simultaneously in the realms of foreign policy and domestic politics in each of our countries. Developments that are driven by purely internal politics—such as the January 6 attack on the US Capitol—have massive spillover effects for the relationship between the United States and Germany, and for broader transatlantic relations.

The challenges and difficulties faced by both countries are clear; the solutions are not. What we can see after our respective times in Berlin and Washington is that for the future success of transatlantic relations the conversation between the two countries cannot remained confined to a narrow and elite band of international-relations thinking. Rather, transatlantic relations must make sense within the domestic politics of each country. Though this may give rise to difficult conversations for some, it is essential for the renewal and continuation of a strong German-US partnership.

Helmut Schmidt Fellowship

This prestigious position commemorates Helmut Schmidt’s life, service, and legacy by supporting the work of individuals who are committed to advancing the German-American relationship and/or European integration.