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Transatlantic Take

The United States’ Reassessment of its Global Role is Creating a Strategic Crisis for Germany

November 10, 2020
7 min read
Photo Credit: EWY Media / Shutterstock

The United States’ reassessment of its global role is creating a strategic crisis for Germany. Few European countries need the United States to be a European power more than Germany. And not merely because the country cannot defend itself. Beyond its role as a military ally, the United States’ second important function is easily overlooked: it is the great underwriter of European integration and thus Europe’s pacifier.

For longer than there have been nation-states, Europeans have waged war against each other, culminating in the European civil wars of the 20th century. All too often, the greatest mistrust of any state was toward its own neighbor. Only when Pax Americana arrived did geopolitical competition on the European continent fade: post-1945 in the western part of Europe, post-1990 in the space reaching the Russian border. That the United States, by its mere presence, keeps the European fraternal quarrels under control is the lasting prerequisite for European integration.

No country has benefited more from this U.S. guarantee than Germany, because—due to its size, history, and industrial strength—no other European country is met with more neighborly distrust. The United States’ underwriting for Europe is therefore the geostrategic basis of Germany’s postwar success, its peaceful rise, and its affluence. The German question is no more because the United States is a European power.

Therefore, Germany has a lot to lose if the United States further reduces its presence in Europe and redefines its role. Despite all the heart-warming appeals for European unity, the opposite can be observed: With the United States stoking rather than dampening frictions within Europe, deep cracks are visible across the continent. The revelation of its own divisions and its fragility is Europe’s bitter lesson from Donald Trump’s term in office.

There is not just one Europe that relates to the United States. There are at least three Europes. There is France, a nuclear power, which considers the United States to be unreliable and sees it drifting away in the long term, and which therefore strives for European “strategic sovereignty.” There is Poland, which is always aware of the Russian danger, and therefore relies on a “strategic embrace” of the United States, come what may. And then there is Germany, which exercises “strategic patience” because it does not want to destroy the basic conditions which, for the first time since its industrialization, have resolved the dilemma of its size and central location in Europe.

For France and for Poland, the U.S. presidential election does not qualify as a milestone because both countries’ strategies will remain unaltered. But for Germany, the stakes are high. The question remains unanswered as to what will become of its “strategic patience” after the election. Patience can be tested in foreign policy, as the past four years have shown. And patience can very well be confused with inertia. “Strategic patience” requires activity and investment to stay on target under difficult and even deteriorating conditions, especially when a person as tough to manage as Donald Trump is at the helm in the United States. It is difficult to claim that the German government has been more successful than other European countries in working with the current president.

Simply hoping for improvement is not a strategy. Not least because the very foreign policy preferences that helped carry Donald Trump to victory in 2016 continued to be as important on this election day as they were on the last: the calls for fair trade, the desire for better burden sharing with allies, intervention fatigue. The distrust of China has even grown.

From now on, whoever governs the United States will not be able to ignore the widespread feeling of overstretch. The next president must respond to the electorate’s unwillingness for the United States to act as the world’s policeman; he will prefer to focus on domestic policy and to concentrate on the most important strategic challenge: China. The withdrawal from the Middle East is likely to continue. There is also consensus in Washington that more of Europe’s security should be left to the Europeans.

What the United States wants from Germany is equally undisputed in Washington: Keep a distance from China, keep a distance from Russia—in other words, abandon the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project—and do more for your own defense.

Out of this bipartisan consensus, many German analysts draw the conclusion that, from a German perspective, it makes little difference who wins the election. At best, the two candidates merely differ in style and tone. But this reading is a dangerous fallacy. What looks similar need not be similar if different goals are pursued. Anyone who believes that it is nothing but style that sets the two candidates apart misjudges the fundamental differences between them: Trump wants to destroy the liberal world order; Biden wants to preserve and renew it, albeit with a reduced U.S. footprint. Trump feels hemmed in by multilateral agreements and sees allies as a burden; for Biden, such treaties guarantee stability and allies are power multipliers. With Trump, European integration would have to be defended against the United States; with Biden, the United States’ goal would be to preserve and strengthen European integration.

For Germany, Europe’s central power, these variances are of crucial importance. In light of the differences in outlook, the U.S. wish list for Germany reads quite differently. To be sure, Germany needs to find its own answer to the strategic crisis resulting from the United States’ gradual retreat from Europe. But the implementation of “less America” in Europe can take many different shapes and forms. With Trump: disruptive, erratic, non-strategic, unilateral, and accompanied by lots of bilateral tensions. With Biden, there is at least a chance that the changes would take place in a planned manner, consensually, with Europe’s key interests preserved and stability maintained.

With Biden there would be a sizeable agenda of joint projects (for example, climate, arms control, Iran, democracy); with Trump the list would be shorter. But still, there is a list. And both show overlap, especially on two policy areas: China and NATO.

Within NATO, the German government’s maneuvering has led to a full-blown crisis of trust. Germany has committed to co-financing the alliance on the basis of solidarity and fairness, but it is acting like a free rider that circumvents its multilateral obligations. At three NATO summits, it agreed to the 2 percent spending target for defense, but to date it has refused to even provide a plan for how it intends to achieve this goal by 2024. At the 2018 summit, Chancellor Angela Merkel personally acknowledged and supported the 2 percent spending target, only to add that Germany was therefore aiming at 1.5 percent. No NATO partner bought into this trick. It seemed to resemble a Trumpian relationship to math and truth. No one should be surprised when outside of Germany the question is asked who is more effectively undermining NATO: Trump’s United States or Merkel’s Germany?

For a country that exercises “strategic patience,” this policy is self-destructive. Germany’s goal should be to pursue a strategy based upon what it has learned from phasing out nuclear power and coal: enable the transition into a better future through investment. Together with the next U.S. administration, Germany should lead the movement within NATO to rework the alliance’s strategic concept and adapt it to the new global environment. Within this framework, the United States’ role in and for Europe would be reduced, but also codified for the medium term. At the same time, Europe would have to assume a significantly larger military role within NATO. This would require an ambitious spending plan that would make the 2 percent target, which has become toxic in Germany’s domestic environment, superfluous.

Second, the relationship with the Communist Party dictatorship in China should be coordinated. The more the United States distances itself from the radical idea of economic decoupling from China, the easier it will be for Germany to respect its security concerns vis-à-vis China. While Germany should defend the concept of an open world, it will need to rally its European partners to confront China about the country’s systematic negligence of international trade rules. The German government still shuns the robust liberalism that this requires. In dealing with China, unity and solidarity are paramount. The only way forward will be to act in unison, together with European partners and the United States. Relations with China will define transatlantic relations in the future. To date, Europe and the United States have not even agreed on a forum to discuss these questions. 

This U.S. election will undoubtedly serve as a signpost for the future course of the German-U.S. relationship. But whether this indispensable relationship will improve is not decided in Washington alone.

This text is translated and adapted from the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper where it was published on November 4, 2020, under the headline “What now? The United States’ reassessment of its global role is creating a strategic crisis for Germany

This is part of our series on the policy implications of the 2020 U.S. elections for U.S. allies—you’ll find the rest of the series HERE.