The United States in German Foreign Policy

April 14, 2016
Hans Kundnani
19 min read
Since it first emerged in 2013 that the U.S.

Since it first emerged in 2013 that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), together with the British Government Communication Headquarters, had carried out a massive program of surveillance of German citizens, there has been much talk of a crisis in relations between Germany and the United States. The revelations, which were made by a former NSA contractor, Edward Snowden, caused a huge wave of anger in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose own cellphone, it later emerged, had also been monitored, said: “Friends don’t spy on friends.” (It subsequently emerged, however, that German intelligence agencies had also spied on European Union partners.) Many Germans said the revelations had shattered their “trust” in the United States. The Bundestag established a committee to investigate the revelations of spying, which is still ongoing.

However, the NSA scandal should be seen as a catalyst rather than a cause of the crisis in relations between Germany and the United States. The current rift has much deeper roots that go back to the end of the Cold War. Until reunification in 1990, the Federal Republic was a “semi-sovereign state, dependent on its allies for protection against the Soviet threat and inhibited by the history of the Second World War from defining or explicitly pursuing its own national interests.”[1] In this context, the United States was crucial for the Federal Republic — particularly for security. But now that Germany is reunified and “encircled by friends,” as former Defense Minister Volker Rühe put it, it has much greater strategic space to define its interests as it wants to. The case for a close relationship with the United States is now more complicated, and much harder to make, than it was during the Cold War.

Many Germans are no longer convinced that the United States is...a “friend.”

Against the background of this changed strategic environment, Germany’s relationship with the United States has undergone a gradual transformation in the last 25 years. In particular, the relationship has become much more complicated as threat perceptions in the two countries have diverged during the 15 years since 9/11. This divergence is, in turn, based on the different ways Americans and Germans understand international politics in the post-Cold War world. In this context, many in Germany have begun to question whether they still share interests and values with the United States. Put simply, many Germans are no longer convinced that the United States is — to use the language Merkel herself used in the context of the NSA scandal — a “friend.”

An Incremental Estrangement

After the end of the Cold War, the United States wanted the reunified Germany to play a more active role in international security and to become, as President George H. W. Bush put it, a “partner in leadership.” In Germany, meanwhile, there was much discussion about becoming a more “normal” country. During this period, as I have argued elsewhere, the concept of “normality” was used largely as a synonym for Bündnisfähigkeit, or “the ability to be a member of the Atlantic alliance.”[2] In response to the series of ethnic and regional conflicts that flared up over the next decade, particularly in the Balkans, the Federal Republic took a series of small steps toward a more activist foreign policy, culminating in the deployment of four Tornado jets on combat missions as part of the NATO military intervention against Serbia in 1999.

However, during the subsequent decade, German-U.S. relations worsened. Even before the September 11 attacks on the United States, President George W. Bush had already alienated many Germans by refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and to sign up to the International Criminal Court. But the attacks created a “powerful wave of support for the United States” in Europe in general and in Germany in particular.[3] Chancellor Gerhard Schröder promised the United States Germany’s “unlimited solidarity” and even put his own job on the line when he called a vote of confidence in conjunction with a Bundestag vote on the deployment of the Bundeswehr as part of the NATO deployment in Afghanistan. Yet even as Germany deployed troops as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission, U.S. and German threat perceptions and strategic culture were diverging.

This came to a head in the run-up to the Iraq war. In August 2002, Schröder launched his re-election campaign with a speech in which he opposed the war and spoke of a “Deutscher Weg,” or “German Way” — an implicit contrast with the “American Way.” A few days before the election in September 2002, in which Schröder was successfully reelected, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said relations between Germany and the United States had been “poisoned.”[4] (It was around this time that the NSA seems to have begun monitoring the chancellor’s cellphone.) According to Stephen Szabo, with the rift over the Iraq war, “the post-Cold War period in the German-U.S. relationship ended.”[5] Henry Kissinger wrote that he had never thought that the relationship could deteriorate so quickly and worried that “a kind of anti-Americanism may become a permanent temptation of German politics.”[6]

What made the rift so significant was not so much the fact that Germany had opposed the war, but the way it had done so. 

What made the rift so significant was not so much the fact that Germany had opposed the war, but the way it had done so. It was not just that a German chancellor had never before so publicly opposed the United States on such an important issue, but also that, beyond the decision to invade Iraq, Schröder also distanced himself from the United States in a much more general way. “The era in which America and others should be a model for us in terms of the economy is really over,” he declared.[7] Moreover, Schröder not only used anti-American rhetoric, but also sought to form a counter-coalition against the United States as part of what one international relations theorist called a strategy of “soft balancing.”[8] The rift between Germany and the United States over Iraq even led some analysts to worry that it “could signal the end of ‘the West’ as a meaningful concept.”[9]

The second critical juncture in Germany’s incremental estrangement from the United States was the financial crisis that began with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the autumn of 2008. Despite the extensive investment of large German banks in “sub-prime” mortgage-backed securities, Germans saw it above all as a crisis of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. To many Germans, particularly on the left, the crisis demonstrated how wrong the United Kingdom and the United States had been to focus on the “new economy” and on financial services. They saw in the crisis a vindication of the German social market economy — in other words, exactly what Schröder had talked about in his “German Way” speech in 2002. Thus, if the Iraq War had given Germans the confidence to go their own way on matters of war and peace, the financial crisis gave them the confidence to do so on economic issues as well.

In particular, the financial crisis also strengthened German skepticism of Keynesianism, which Germans associated with Anglo-Saxon economists. This anti-Keynesian turn led to disagreements between Germany (a surplus country) and the United States (a deficit country) about how to “rebalance” the global economy. Many Anglo-Saxon economists thought that the crisis was a Keynesian moment that was, as Paul Krugman put it, “essentially the same kind of situation that John Maynard Keynes described back in the 1930s.”[10] In particular, they thought that the problem in the global economy was a lack of aggregate demand and that the solution was economic stimulus. But the Germans disagreed. As finance minister in December 2008, the Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück attacked the “crass Keynesianism” of the British government under Gordon Brown, who had urged stimulus measures.[11] That in turn prompted an angry response from Krugman, who called the German government “bone-headed.”[12]

Others have suggested that U.S. critics are motivated by a kind of anti-German racism.

These arguments between Americans and Germans foreshadowed the debates that would take place after the euro crisis began in 2010. Since the beginning of that crisis, many Americans have vociferously criticized the German-led response. The U.S. Treasury has also repeatedly called on Germany to do more to reduce its current account surplus and stimulate growth in the eurozone. But Germans have tended to dismiss such criticisms and rejected such demands. They often suggest that U.S. critics of German and eurozone policy — embodied in the German imagination by the figure of Krugman, a target of much German anger — simply do not understand Europe or the euro. For example, in an interview with Der Spiegel, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble said that although Krugman might have won a Nobel Prize in economics, he has “no idea about the architecture and foundation of the European currency union.”[13] Others have suggested that U.S. critics are motivated by a kind of anti-German racism.[14]

A Generational Shift?

Against the background of these arguments about foreign and economic policy, attitudes to the United States in Germany have fluctuated wildly over the last 15 years. Public support for the United States in Germany dramatically collapsed during the Bush administration. According to the Pew Research Center, for example, the United States’ favorability rating went from 78 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2008.[15] But this collapse was reversed by the election of Barack Obama, who was seen in Germany as a kind of “savior.”[16] According to the 2009 edition of the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends, 92 percent of Germans approved of Obama after he had been in office for half a year, compared to only 12 percent who approved of Bush the year before — in other words, a whopping 80-point “Obama bounce,” as the authors of the report called it.[17]

However, since then, support for the United States has once again plummeted, reflecting disappointment among many Germans that Obama’s foreign policy did not break with that of his predecessor as much as they had hoped. According to one of Germany’s leading polling organizations, trust in the United States fell from 80 percent in 2009 to 35 percent in 2014.[18] A Pew survey in June 2015 found that German views of the United States were now more negative than those of any other NATO country. Whereas large majorities in Canada, France, Italy, Poland, Spain and the U.K. had favorable views of the United States, only 50 percent of German respondents gave the United States a positive rating, and 45 percent expressed a negative view.[19] In some ways, the situation is now worse than during the Bush era: at that time, anger was more selectively directed toward Bush and the neoconservatives; now, it is generally directed toward the United States as a whole.

Many have sought to explain the increasingly negative perception of the United States in Germany in generational terms. As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it, “to the generation of tomorrow, the value of the transatlantic partnership is in no way as self-evident as it is to my generation.”[20] However, there is a danger of committing what Robert Kagan, in a different context, has called the “nostalgic fallacy” — that is, romanticizing the past.[21] There is a long history of anti-Americanism in Germany on both the left and the right, which was closely linked to anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-capitalist, and even anti-Semitic currents in German thought. [22] The tropes that link present-day anti-Americanism with anti-Semitism even led Dan Diner to argue in the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991 that anti-Americanism can be seen as a kind of “disguised anti-Semitism.”[23]

After World War II, the United States was both liberator and occupier — gratitude therefore co-existed with resentment among the West German population. This came to the surface during the 1960s, when the post-war generation, which had grown up idealizing the United States, turned against it during the Vietnam War. For many young West Germans, the B-52 dropping bombs over North Vietnam replaced the C-47 delivering food to West Berlin as the symbol of U.S. power. During the 1970s, students threw Molotov cocktails at U.S. institutions such as the Amerika Haus in Berlin and equated the United States with Nazism (“USA—SA—SS” was a popular slogan of the time). In the 1970s, left-wing terrorists even murdered U.S. soldiers. Though there is little available polling data to make a rigorous comparison, the “1968 generation” to which Schröder belonged — in Steinmeier’s terms, the “generation of yesterday” — was probably the most anti-American of all.

There are striking parallels between the current moment and the moment after the end of the Vietnam War.

Indeed, there are striking parallels between the current moment and the moment after the end of the Vietnam War. What seems to have happened is that, for a generation of young Germans, the Iraq War had a similar effect that the Vietnam War had for the post-war generation: it shattered their illusions about the United States. The current situation is also, in a wider sense, somewhat analogous to the situation in the late 1970s after the Vietnam War came to an end. Then, as now, there was both a perception of U.S. decline and anger in Germany about U.S. foreign policy, particularly among a generation of young people. Then, as now, economic success had produced a sense of pride in Germany captured by the idea of Modell Deutschland.[24] Then, as now, the Federal Republic sought to pursue a more assertive foreign policy based on economic strength.

The real difference between then and now is not so much the existence or level of anti-Americanism but the strategic situation in which Germany finds itself. While German Atlanticists and many foreign policy experts stress that the relationship with the United States is as important as ever, as the liberal international order is threatened and in order to work together on shared challenges such as climate change and terrorism, the case for cooperation is now a more complicated and much harder one to make to ordinary Germans. “During the decades when Soviet power cast a dark shadow across the entire continent, the importance of the German-American alliance was self-evident,” as the GMF task force report published last year puts it. “That has not been the case since German unification 25 years ago.”[25]

Germany is much less likely than in the past to accede to U.S. demands or succumb to U.S. pressure.

The upshot of all this is that Germany is much less likely than in the past to accede to U.S. demands or succumb to U.S. pressure. Germans are now much more skeptical of U.S. (or Anglo-Saxon) ideas — whether on foreign policy or on economic policy — and are more comfortable with the idea of going their own way and disagreeing with, and being criticized by, Americans. A shift in the meaning of the concept of “normality” reflects this change: it is now associated with the pursuit of national interests rather than Bündnisfähigkeit. This is significant, because whereas the earlier idea of “normality” was used to justify foreign-policy choices that coincided with those of Germany’s NATO allies, such as participation in the Kosovo war and the deployment of troops to Afghanistan, this new idea of “normality” is one that can be used to justify a divergence by Germany from allies and especially from the United States.

A New Strategic Situation?

In this post-Cold War context, Germany has increasingly come to see itself as a Friedensmacht, or “force for peace,” defined in opposition to the United States. The term was originally used as a self-description by the German Democratic Republic and was applied to the Federal Republic in 1993 by Alfred Merchtesheimer, a former German air force colonel who joined the Green Party in the 1980s and later moved to the far right.[26] In particular, Merchtesheimer saw the United States as a “negative model” against which Germany should define itself. Similar arguments were later made by Egon Bahr, Willy Brandt’s adviser and the architect of Ostpolitik. In a book called Der Deutsche Weg, published shortly after the Iraq war, he argued that Germany should distinguish itself from the United States through its opposition to the use of military force.[27] Since then, the SPD has also increasingly used the term Friedensmacht.[28]

However, Germany’s strategic situation has changed to some extent since the Ukraine crisis. In particular, the renewed threat from Russia to European security — some analysts even speak of a “new Cold War” — has allowed German Atlanticists and foreign policy experts to put incidents like the NSA scandal in a bigger strategic context and to make the case for a stronger relationship with the United States. In this sense, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 can be seen as analogous to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which brought the period of détente that had begun under U.S. President Richard Nixon to an end. It was in this new context (the “Second Cold War”) that Chancellor Helmut Schmidt — who believed West Germany was now vulnerable to an attack by the Soviet Union using conventional forces — called for NATO to install medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe.

The new strategic situation in Europe has the potential to divide Americans and Germans even further.

Nevertheless, as reassuring as this might be for Atlanticists, the new strategic situation in Europe also has the potential to divide Americans and Germans even further. Perhaps the most significant difference between the situation since 2014 and the situation after 1979 is Germany’s position in the center of an enlarged Europe. Even now, Germans do not see Russia as a direct threat to them in the way they saw the Soviet Union as a direct threat to them during the Cold War. Rather, the threat from Russia now is to NATO allies such as the Baltic states and Poland — and, according to one poll in 2015, only 38 percent of Germans would be willing to use military force to defend these countries if they were attacked.[29] Many Germans also see the U.S. approach to Russia as part of the problem rather than the solution. Ironically, what some see as an aggressive U.S. approach to Russia is the policy that led to Germany being “encircled by friends” — the enlargement of NATO.

While Germany has supported economic sanctions against Russia, it has opposed other steps to reassure NATO allies and deter Russia. Even after the strategic shock of the annexation of Crimea, Germany did not significantly increase defense spending as a proportion of GDP. Ahead of the NATO summit in Wales in September 2014, Germany opposed plans to strengthen NATO’s presence in Central and Eastern Europe because it worried this would violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act, which was signed in 1997. In February 2015, when a debate started in the United States about providing direct lethal military assistance to Ukraine and reports suggested that the Obama administration was taking a “fresh look” at the issue, Merkel immediately, and publicly, opposed it.[30] If the Minsk Agreement has not yet been fully implemented by the time Obama’s successor is in office in 2017, and he or she decides to arm Ukraine, it could lead to a rift with Germany — particularly if the Ukrainian government subsequently gave up on a political solution.

The refugee crisis could yet be a game changer in terms of German defense policy in a way that the Ukraine crisis was not. In January, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced that she wants to spend €130 billion on defense equipment over the next 15 years. However, even if approved by the government and lawmakers, this is unlikely to significantly increase spending as a proportion of GDP, let alone reach the 2 percent target — about which von der Leyen has long expressed skepticism. The increase in defense spending is also unlikely to lead to a significant improvement in terms of capabilities because much of it will go toward repairing or replacing old equipment. During the last couple of years, a series of reports have revealed that only a fraction of Germany’s jets, tanks, and helicopters are operational because of cuts in spending on maintenance since 2010.

Meanwhile the refugee crisis in Europe has also added another potential source of tension between Germany and the United States. Some German policymakers were frustrated that the United States did not do more to help Germany deal with the crisis — which many in Germany believe the United States caused through its military intervention in Iraq. This illustrates how the relationship has changed since German reunification. For a long time after the end of the Cold War, the United States made demands of Germany and put it under pressure to fulfill them, particularly in relation to security policy. Now, however, Germany has a much clearer sense of its own national interest than it used to. In the future, tensions could arise from a perception in Germany that the United States is failing to help it pursue its objectives, particularly within the EU, as much as the other way around.


[1] Christopher Hill, The actors in Europe’s foreign policy (London: Routledge, 1996), Amazon Kindle edition, Location 430.

[2] Hans Kundnani, “The Concept of ‘Normality’ in German Foreign Policy since Unification,” German Politics and Society, Volume 30, Issue 2, Summer 2012, pp. 38-58.

[3] Ronald D. Asmus, “Rebuilding the Atlantic Alliance,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2003,

[4] Steven Erlanger, “Germans Vote in a Tight Election in Which Bush, Hitler
and Israel Became Key Issues,” The New York Times, September 22, 2002,

[5] Stephen F. Szabo, Parting Ways. The Crisis in German-American Relations (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2004), p. 1.

[6] Quoted in Szabo, Parting Ways, pp. 129, 79.

[7] Speech by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, August 5, 2002, Hannover,

[8] Robert A. Pape, “Soft Balancing against the United States,” International Security, Vol. 30, No. 1 (Summer 2005), pp. 7-45. Pape defines “soft balancing” against the United States as “the use of nonmilitary tools to delay, frustrate, and undermine aggressive unilateral U.S. military policies.”

[9] Szabo, Parting Ways, p. 6.

[10] Paul Krugman, End this Depression Now! (New York: Norton, 2012), p. xxii.

[11] “‘It Doesn’t Exist!’ Germany’s outspoken finance minister on the hopeless search for ‘the Great Rescue Plan’,” Newsweek, 5 December 2008,

[12] Paul Krugman, “The economic consequences of Herr Steinbrueck,” The New York Times, December 11, 2008,

[13] “Spiegel Interview with Wolfgang Schäuble: ‘There Is No German Dominance’,” Spiegel Online, July 17, 2015,

[14] See for example Nikolaus Piper, “Warum ein Nobelpreisträger auf Deutschland losgeht” [Why a Nobel Prize winner is lashing out against Germany], Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 13, 2015,

[15] Pew Research Center, Global Public Opinion in the Bush Years (2001-2008), December 18, 2008,

[16] Josef Joffe, “Obama, der Erlöser?” [Obama the savior], Die Zeit, June 5, 2008,

[17] German Marshall Fund, Transatlantic Trends 2009, p. 7,

[18] ARD DeutschlandTREND poll carried out by Infratest dimap, quoted in “Longstanding Partners in Changing Times: Report of the Task Force on the Future of German-American Relations,” German Marshall Fund, May 29, 2015, p. 4,

[19] Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes and Jacob Poushter, Global Publics Back U.S. on Fighting ISIS, but Are Critical of Post-9/11 Torture,” Pew Research Center, 23 June 2015, p.12,

[20] “Transatlantic Ties for a New Generation,” Speech by Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Brookings Institution, Washington, February 28, 2014,

[21] Robert Kagan, The World America Made (New York: Knopf, 2012), p. 110.

[22] See Dan Diner, America in the Eyes of the Germans: An Essay on Anti-Americanism (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1996).

[23] Dan Diner, Der Krieg der Erinnerungen und die Ordnung der Welt [The memory war and world order], Berlin: Rotbuch, 1991), p. 62.

[24] On the re-emergence of the idea of Modell Deutschland, see Andreas Rödder, “‘Modell Deutschland’ 1950-2011. Konjunkturen einer bundesdeutschen Ordnungsvorstellung” [‘Model Germany’ 1950-2011: The rise and fall of a German idea of order], in Tilman Mayer, Karl-Heinz Paqué and Andreas H. Apelt, Modell Deutschland (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2013), pp. 39-51.

[25] “Longstanding Partners in Changing Times,” p. 3.

[26] Alfred Merchtesheimer, Friedensmacht Deutschland. Plädoyer für einen neuen Patriotismus [Germany, a Force for Peace: A Plea for a New Patriotism] (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1993).

[27] Egon Bahr, Der deutsche Weg: Selbstverständlich und normal [The German Way: Natural and Normal] (Munich: Blessing, 2003).

[28] See Werner Link, Christian Weber and Frank Sauer (eds.), Die Semantik der neuen deutschen Außenpolitik: Eine Analyse des außenpolitischen Vokabulars seit Mitte der 1980er Jahre [The Semantics of the New German Foreign Policy: An Analysis of the Vocabulary of German Foreign Policy Since the Mid-1980s] (Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften 2008), p. 110.

[29] See Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes, and Jacob Poushter, “NATO Publics Blame Russia for Ukrainian Crisis, but Reluctant to Provide Military Aid,” Pew Research Center, June 10, 2015,

[30] On the debate in the United States, see Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Considers Supplying Arms to Ukraine Forces, Officials Say,” The New York Times, February 1, 2015, on Merkel’s rejection of military assistance to Ukraine, see Michael R. Gordon, Alison Smale, and Steven Erlanger, “Western Nations Split on Arming Kiev Forces,” The New York Times, February 7, 2015,