Looking at Germany from the US

Strategic surprises – so-called ‘black swans’ – are by nature a shock, a stress test. The greatest and most consequential strategic surprise for Germany in the past two years has not been Russian aggression, an increasingly self-confident China striding into Europe, or a seemingly disintegrating European project, but rather the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. After 1945, the US security guarantee for Europe allowed Germany to focus on reconstruction; the US as the protector of the liberal world order enabled the Germans to build a worldwide trade network and become the richest country in Europe. In 1989, it was primarily American foresight that paved the way for German reunification in a united Europe. The expansion of NATO under an extended American shield turned Germany, the frontline state, into a country surrounded by friends. At the time, President George H. W. Bush offered the hesitant Germans “partnership in leadership”. Under President Obama, it seemed as if the time were ripe and that the Germans, finally acknowledging their hegemonial responsibility in Europe, were ready for this. In short: no country in Europe has profited from American goodwill like Germany.

This goodwill is over for now – not among normal Americans, or in business circles, but most certainly at the level of the administration. The President, as well as the ideologues he has assembled in his cabinet, share a bleak world view in which the international order is no longer shaped by cooperation, but by competition and conflicts. They make no secret of their disdain for multilateralism and international law; even close partners are coolly measured by what they contribute to the alliance.

The centrists – who see a great deal to value in Germany and certainly see how far the strategic debate has developed in Berlin – believe that the country has not come close to playing the role that would correspond to its increased power.

The European Union and above all Germany, however, have found themselves directly in the hardliners’ line of fire. The culture warriors resent German generosity towards refugees; the trade nationalists hate German balance surpluses. The warmongers are hoping for regime change in North Korea and Iran, and expect European fealty; they condemn Berlin’s refusal to participate in the air strikes on Syria. Russia sceptics have their eye on the pipeline project Nord Stream 2. But even moderate Republicans and Democrats are vexed by Germany’s ailing armed forces and its insufficient defence expenditure; and they worry about Germany’s floundering between its allegiance to the West and Eastern temptations (Russia, China). These centrists – who see a great deal to value in Germany and certainly see how far the strategic debate has developed in Berlin – believe that the country has not come close to playing the role that would correspond to its increased power.

It is between these poles—a tough new line from Washington and the concerns of old friends— that Germany is now developing an America strategy for the first time. This strategy must put up resistance where this is the only option and manage inevitable conflicts (trade policy); it must be able to weather irreconcilable differences civilly (refugee policy); and it should discreetly yield untenable positions (defence expenditure). But above all, in light of a globally increased risk of conflict, it must develop its own strategy: a strategy that is based on German and European values, that is not merely reactive, and that remains compatible with a rational US foreign policy. In this sense, the strategic surprise also represents an opportunity.

Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller (56) has worked as the Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. since October 2014. From 2005 to 2014, she was Head of the Berlin Office and Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, where she conducted the survey “Transatlantic Trends” and, in cooperation with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, organised the project “New Power, New Responsibility”. She holds a doctorate in law.