With the US opting out of its traditional European role, the "German question" has returned. And European leaders will need to make sacrifices if they are to address it.
In May 2017, addressing a crowd in a Bavarian beer tent in Trudering, German Chancellor Angela Merkel first used a phrase she was to repeat many times: “Die Zeiten, in denen wir uns auf andere völlig verlassen konnten, sind ein Stück weit vorbei” (in part, the times in which we could totally rely on others have passed). To applause, she added that the old days were gone.
Merkel has been criticised for the statement, including by this author, due to what she neglected to add – that is, any detail on the things Germany should and would do differently when “taking its destiny into its own hands”. Merkel probably first used the phrase as part of a hedging operation. She likely wanted to avoid entrapment in loyalty to the irritatingly unilateral policies of the Trump administration, which could easily trigger an international conflict and damage her party’s chances in the general elections that were to follow a few months later. Merkel’s statement was unusual but cautiously worded, as it could equally be interpreted as hypothetical.
The rift in transatlantic relations goes far deeper than Angela Merkel seemed to assume
Nonetheless, the chancellor may well have had another message in mind, one that she delivered to the American public on 20 February 2003 in an op-ed published in the Washington Post. In the piece, she openly criticised the Schröder government’s opposition to US plans for the invasion of Iraq, while defending the eastern and central European countries that sided with the Bush administration in a move against France and Germany. Merkel emphasised that, “while military force cannot be the normal continuation of politics by other means, it must never be ruled out, or even merely questioned – as has been done by the German federal government – as the ultimate means of dealing with dictators.” She made it clear that she thought differently: “for the party that I lead, our close partnership and friendship with the United States is just as much a fundamental element of Germany’s national purpose as European integration.”
Against this background, her message at Trudering carries a bitter note of unfulfilled expectations or even frustrated hopes. In hindsight, the turn of the century marked the beginning of the United States’ gradual disengagement from its role as a European power, and neither her own Atlanticist pledge nor her many efforts to maintain close ties with US presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama could reverse the trend. In Trudering, Merkel appeared to have understood that her case was lost. The old days were gone for good.
In reality, the rift in transatlantic relations goes far deeper than she seemed to assume. Two years after her Trudering speech, Merkel is still recovering from the shock of realisation. Speaking at Harvard University’s 2019 commencement, she had little to offer beyond an appeal to the values and principles of multilateralism.
The fact is that, with strike after strike, US President Donald Trump has taken an axe to the foundations of the transatlantic relationship. Not satisfied with withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and – soon – the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Trump administration has also undermined transatlantic free trade and threatened to violate the renegotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (the successor to the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) by imposing tariffs on products from Mexico. All of these steps run against Germany’s and Europe’s interests and preferences, partly by (in the case of the trade deals) imposing additional costs on, or barriers to, their companies.
More fundamentally, Trump’s blunt policies have suddenly exposed the deeper meaning of the redefined US role in Europe. As my colleague Jeremy Shapiro has repeatedly argued, for the US, Europe is a strategic problem that has already been solved. In rhetoric and action, the US is disengaging from its role as a European power – one that sees its role and presence in Europe as part of the pursuit of the national interest. For Washington, NATO should be an asset of US global power rather than a burden.
The comfortable environment Germany has enjoyed for the past 30 years is no more.
With its new approach to NATO, the US will negate some important side effects of its traditional role in Europe. For decades, Washington’s leadership on the continent controlled the many ambitions, apprehensions, and rivalries among European states. It prevented French or British dominance, reassuring the smaller nations of Europe. It helped Germany return to the European and global arena: US policy would protect Germany from anti-German reflexes in its neighbourhood, and protect other European countries from the return of German hegemony. Closing old rifts with its presence in Europe, the US effectively created the political climate in which European economic integration unfolded. That European political and, even more so, defence integration remained weak was in the interests of the US: Washington did not want Europe to become a unified political actor that would challenge the strictly intergovernmental structure of NATO and US leadership within it. Washington managed multiple bilateral relationships to keep the balance between the organisation of the political, economic (not least fiscal), and military spheres. Over time, European integration has largely taken economic matters out of the equation, while many defence and political issues have remained.
To be sure, Berlin and other European capitals have actively contributed to American disengagement, albeit often unintentionally. Germany has been particularly resistant to redefining NATO’s role as “out of area or out of business” – that is, to shifting the focus of the alliance to operations in other regions. German political leaders continue to define NATO’s role as the territorial defence to which they had pledged all their armed forces.
While the US and its key European partners strengthened their capacity to project military power globally, Germany demurred. The main driver of German defence spending continues to be the threat of military aggression against the country or its neighbours rather than strategic ambitions beyond Europe. If Berlin perceives that threat as minimal, expenditure will be low because other issues take priority. When the perceived threat grows, expenditure will recover to some degree, but Berlin will balance it against domestic goals in fiscal or social policy. Germany’s participation in missions abroad primarily flows from its interest in maintaining its allies’ commitment to the core mission of NATO.
Thus, Germany frustrated successive US governments’ expectations that the reunified country would become a “partner in leadership”, a “normal” actor such as the United Kingdom or France, or an active supporter of democratic transformation abroad (let alone regime change). Even when Germany joined military operations targeting an acute security threat – such as those in Afghanistan and Mali – most German policymakers remained sceptical about the stated political goals of intervention. Mainstream political elites in Berlin have never believed that political transformation imposed from outside can succeed in countries such as Iraq, Libya, or Syria. Where the US sought to bring about change, Germany appeared to prefer stability and the status quo. In the unipolar moment – the era of US ascendancy that followed the fall of the Soviet Union – Germany never became the partner the US wished for.
At the same time, American policymakers could hardly overlook the benefits that US-led globalisation had brought Germany, politically as well as economically. Germany companies and tax authorities were harvesting the fruits of US foreign policy, taking full advantage of opening international markets and the expansion of cross-border value chains. In Washington, Germany’s surplus in bilateral trade with the US, which amounted to €50 billion in 2017, serves as a constant reminder of this fact. This is Germany’s biggest bilateral trade surplus. Still, the US is Germany’s most important export destination outside the EU, but Germany accounts for only 10 percent of aggregated foreign direct investment in the US, valued at €373 billion (the UK, comparison, accounts for €598 billion of foreign direct investment in the US). In its economic relationships – unlike those in security affairs, which allow the US to pursue its interests more directly – Germany can hide behind the walls of EU trade policy. In this context, the emission scandals that hit Volkswagen, Germany’s most high-profile exporter, in 2015 have reinforced the negative image of German industry in the US. Though a champion of the rules-based order and human rights, Germany had seemingly allowed one of its industrial crown jewels to cheat on clean-air regulations using technological know-how.
In sum, the comfortable environment Germany has enjoyed for the past 30 years is no more. Berlin has become a target on Washington’s agenda for refashioning the global order. Washington’s moves no longer shield Germany but rather expose it to divisions within Europe. American pressure on Berlin could help rebalance the costs and benefits of the United States’ commitments in Europe, but it could also weaken the European Union.
Berlin’s cautious response
German policymakers respond to these challenges with incrementalism, or what some call “strategic patience”, to allow conflicts to gradually burn out. This involves occasional concessions and the creation of new processes that cushion the effects of power politics. Yet cracks within EU unity have become obvious. Berlin seeks to protect the status quo from the centrifugal forces of fiscal constraints, migration and border security, and the rise of sovereigntist European political parties. The German public is largely pro-EU in principal but remains unwilling to support specific new commitments to European integration. As a consequence, Berlin adopts a far more reactive approach to the union than its most important partner, France. In the absence of other committed players, Franco-German disagreement leads nowhere. Merkel can only hope Washington’s attempts to weaponise trade through punitive tariffs will fail before it fully applies this strategy to the EU.
As the sea change in transatlantic relations is even more evident in security and defence, the challenges Germany faces in this area loom larger than those in economics and trade. In one sense, a strong economy and healthy tax receipts make matters worse: Germany cannot reach NATO’s target of spending two percent of GDP on defence because this would violate important domestic policy commitments. Moreover, the German armed forces cannot absorb additional resources effectively in the short term, as the large-scale procurement of military equipment from US manufacturers would destroy European cooperation schemes – which Germany needs to maintain its defence industrial base.
Germany’s preference is to build a credible defence posture through enhanced cooperation between European countries
Were Germany to build a strong national defence capability based on the two-percent target, as the US wants it to, this would not automatically lead to deeper European cooperation – because many other European states could see it as a step towards German or Franco-German dominance. In turn, the security dilemma for eastern and central European countries could grow. Polish leaders, for example, neither trust Germany in defence terms nor support EU-style defence policies. They do not fully believe in the US commitment to defend Europe, but prefer it to the alternatives. This is why they seek assurances about the American security umbrella from Washington, offering political and financial incentives to that effect.
Many European countries would object to Germany shifting its national defence posture, through the Aachen Treaty, to include nuclear sharing with France. In this scenario, Germany would fund and co-own a nuclear-weapons capability under French command, providing deterrence without the need for the US guarantee – an option that is unavailable to other continental members of NATO and the EU on the bilateral level.
For these reasons, Germany’s preference is to build a credible defence posture through enhanced cooperation between European countries, in the context of the EU and NATO, and through bilateral force integration agreements (in the absence of a pan-EU arrangement of this kind). Here, the German approach is also incremental and, as such, less divisive but much slower than the alternatives. And linkages between defence policy and other areas – be it eurozone governance or the EU’s policies or budget – will inevitably delay the process further, as all these factors will be important to rebalancing Europe. For Germany, this means that the days of high returns at low cost have come to an end. The country will have to make greater political and financial efforts to uphold and strengthen the cooperative European political environment that it wants and needs.
Atlanticism has long been the conceptual framework for suppressing the historical “German question”: how to deal with a Germany that is too large to be controlled by others but too small to dominate Europe? With the US opting out of its traditional European role, the question has returned. And European leaders will need to make sacrifices if they are to address it. The next German chancellor should take a lead role in this – or, to paraphrase Robert Kagan’s dictum, the past will grow back.
 See Eckhard Lübkemeier, “Wir brauchen Paris als nukleare Rückversicherung”, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 15 March 2019, p. 8.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.