"Things Can Only Get Better" A Look Ahead at German-American Relations after Trump

United States President-Elect Joe Biden has long had strong ties to Germany and those are likely to continue once he is in the White House. But German and American interests diverge strongly on a number of foreign policy issues ranging from China to Russia.
Angela Merkel and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden in 2009 in Washington: Showering the chancellor with charm.

Angela Merkel and U.S. President-elect Joe Biden in 2009 in Washington: Showering the chancellor with charm.


Foto: Jason Reed / REUTERS

It was abundantly clear on that February day in the magnificent ballroom of the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich just where the public’s sympathies lay. The German chancellor’s speech at the Munich Security Conference was followed by long applause from the assembled foreign policy experts from around the world. Many stood up and gave Angela Merkel a standing ovation. When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden delivered his speech a short time later, he received the political equivalent of a golf clap.

That was in 2015, the year in which the Ukraine crisis was coming to a head, and a dispute had broken out on stage between Merkel and Biden over arms supplies to the Ukrainian army. Biden was in favor, but Merkel, fearing an escalation of the conflict, was opposed -- and was later able to convince U.S. President Barack Obama.

In his memoirs, Biden bluntly describes his disappointment with the German chancellor, who in his opinion was far too lax with Putin. In the book "Promise Me, Dad," he mocks Merkel's "passive voice" while at the same time praising his own speech as his having been his best ever. A meeting on the margins of the event with Merkel and the Ukrainian president apparently wasn't particularly harmonious, either. "Merkel seemed frustrated with me," Biden wrote of the meeting.

The dispute in Munich is only a snapshot; the German Chancellor and the U.S. President-elect are much too experienced in the world of politics to let something like that overshadow future relations. But it does highlight potential future lines of conflict, which, despite all the joy at the end of the Trump years, will remain even under a U.S. President Biden: the relationship with Russia and the question of Europe's self-sufficiency.

For the time being, fundamental differences are being overshadowed by the relief that Donald Trump, who called the EU a "foe" will be leaving the White House on Jan. 20. Biden's victory is cause for hope for those Europeans who want a return to the traditional trans-Atlantic alliance -- and who believe that Western democracies can only succeed if the U.S. remains a committed actor on the international stage and does not withdraw further from global politics.

"The return of the U.S. to the international stage will change a lot of things, because together we stand for a cooperative approach," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told DER SPIEGEL in an interview last week. "Whether we like it or not, the world doesn't organize itself," is something that Antony Blinken, Biden's nominee for secretary of state, has said repeatedly. That sentence holds out the promise that the U.S. is once again ready to lead the West. But is the country still even capable of doing so? And do the Europeans want to be led?

People celebrating on the evening of the U.S. election in Berlin: There are hopes for a fresh start in trans-Atlantic relations.

People celebrating on the evening of the U.S. election in Berlin: There are hopes for a fresh start in trans-Atlantic relations.

Foto: Jan Scheunert / ddp images

Either way, the alienation between Europe and the U.S. began long before the Trump presidency. It began with George W. Bush’s Iraq war plunging the Middle East into chaos, and it continued under Barack Obama. Obama may be more revered in Germany than almost any U.S. president before him, but his hesitation contributed to the fact that the killing wasn’t stopped in Syria.

Trump’s election was also a response to the failure of a foreign policy establishment of which Biden has been a member for almost half a century. The 78-year-old was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, where he headed the Foreign Relations Committee for many years. In the autumn of 2002, he voted in favor of the Iraq war, which would become the biggest foreign policy debacle in U.S. politics since Vietnam. And as vice president, he shared responsibility for the overly hasty withdrawal of troops that made possible the rise of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.

The reserved line coming out of Berlin is that "things can only get better,” says one top German official, because Biden is predictable, reliable and anything but a hothead. The most important thing is that he’s not Trump. It doesn't exactly sound enthusiastic.

Rolf Mützenich, head of the parliamentary group of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), recommended after the election that Europeans should more strongly detach themselves from reliance on the U.S. – a view that also appeals to French President Emmanuel Macron, who last year described NATO as "brain dead.”

DER SPIEGEL 50/2020
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The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2020 (December 5, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

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"There won’t be a return to the old status quo," says a rather disillusioned top official at the German Foreign Ministry. Germany and the U.S. are like an old married couple that, after a break in their relationship, pull themselves together to try to patch things up. At the moment, it seems like the passion for the relationship is a bit stronger in Washington. When Merkel congratulated Biden by phone in mid-November on his election victory, the tone was said to have been very warm. Sources familiar with the conversation say that it was almost embarrassing for the German chancellor to hear the effusive comments of the American president-elect.

It wasn’t the first time Biden had courted the German chancellor. At the beginning of 2013, when Biden was still vice president, he and his wife made a brief visit to Berlin before attending the Munich Security Conference. A meeting participant reported that Biden had literally showered the chancellor with his charm during the conversation. Sources said Merkel had been rather bored by the Democrat’s lengthy remarks. At a joint lunch, Biden had spoken in such detail about his contacts and experiences in the Senate that the chancellor soon turned her attention to her wristwatch.

Merkel later developed a closer relationship with Obama and his administration. Things only really got warm at the end of Obama’s presidency, when he saw Merkel as his heir apparent as leader of the free world. In the past four years, there has hardly been any other European country that Donald Trump has attacked as vehemently as Germany.

More recently, the situation between the chancellor and the U.S. president has been radio silence. The two have only telephoned with each other three times in 2020, with the last call on May 8 on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Now politicians in Berlin feel affirmed in their approach of making no concessions to Trump, instead just sitting out his term in office with "strategic patience."

In Berlin, the talk now is of "extensive repair work” that is now necessary. All over Berlin, politicians, experts and officials are drafting papers – from the parliamentary group of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU) to the Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery. The European Commission is also making preparations. "There is a broad understanding that we must use the time until the inauguration on Jan. 20 to become clear about what we want in the future in trans-Atlantic relations and what we can achieve," says Peter Beyer, the German government's trans-Atlantic relations coordinator. "Biden needs the Europeans."

The corona crisis presents a good opportunity for renewed cooperation. In Berlin, the fact that a successful German-American partnership exists between with the Mainz-based vaccine start-up BioNTech and the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is viewed as a stroke of fate. "COVID-19 could become the launching pad for a new start in trans-Atlantic relations," says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund, an American think tank focused on trans-Atlantic relations. He says he could imagine the pandemic as an issue the G-7 could pick up, thus reviving a form of international cooperation that Trump has systematically torpedoed.

Biden has already announced that the U.S. will rejoin the World Health Organization. He also wants to reverse the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate protection and he intends to make a clear commitment to NATO. Trump, on the other hand, threatened internally to withdraw from the alliance at the Brussels NATO summit in summer 2018.

In Washington, there are reports that Biden may send Julianne Smith, one of his most important foreign policy advisers, to Brussels as the new NATO ambassador. She served Biden as deputy national security adviser when he was vice president. If she is nominated for that post, it would serve as a signal for the degree to which Biden wants to quickly repair the relationship with his European partners.

Trump graffiti in Berlin: Politicians in Germany feel affirmed in their approach of making no concessions to Trump, instead just sitting out his term in office with "strategic patience."

Trump graffiti in Berlin: Politicians in Germany feel affirmed in their approach of making no concessions to Trump, instead just sitting out his term in office with "strategic patience."

Foto: Jan Scheunert / ddp images

Time is short. The uncertainty caused by the Trump years is deep-seated, and Europeans are well aware that American voters may choose a Trump duplicate in four years. That’s why Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff implores: "We have to consolidate and modernize trans-Atlantic relations in the next four years.” But that won’t be as easy in every area as it will be in bringing the pandemic under control.

It’s already foreseeable that Russia policy will remain one of the main points of contention between Berlin and Washington. Trump has complained bitterly over the past four years that German and Russian companies are building the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea with the chancellor's blessing. Trump raged that the pipeline  could make Berlin a "hostage” of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It’s likely that Biden will be more measured in his words, but it is unlikely he will be more conciliatory in his actions. The U.S. House of Representatives, which is under Democratic control, has already passed sanctions against the companies that are helping Russia complete the pipeline. And Biden will hardly be able to afford the appearance of weakness toward Russia. Right-wing TV channels like Fox News are already caricaturing the president-elect as a moronic grandfather who will be child’s play for nefarious potentates like Putin.

In Congress, too, the Republicans are just standing by and waiting for Biden to show any weakness toward America’s rivals. "It doesn’t matter if it’s about Russia or China, the Republicans in the Senate will always say that Biden isn’t tough enough,” says Heather Conley of the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Trouble is also looming on China policy, which represents the greatest foreign policy challenge for Biden. One reason is that the view of China from either side of the Atlantic is quite different. Biden visited China several times during his tenure as vice president, with Obama having put him in charge of U.S.-Chinese relations. At first, he saw President Xi Jinping as an open-minded reformer, but he has since admitted that his initial impression was wrong.

In Germany, Chancellor Merkel recognized the importance of the Asian giant early on and has visited China almost every year of her long tenure. Despite Beijing's increasing repression and its aspirations to become a world power, Merkel still maintains that a change in the autocratic regime toward more openness and democracy is possible in the medium term. But it is also true that Berlin doesn’t want to endanger trade with China, which is so important for the German economy.

Biden is facing a delicate task. On the one hand, he doesn’t want the conflict with China to escalate any further. Already, Trump’s boorish language has brought relations with China to an historic low. On the other hand, he has to demonstrate a willingness to stand up to Beijing’s push for power.

In Washington, it is undisputed that the U.S. needs to become economically more independent from China. The coronavirus pandemic has shown in all its severity that the country is too dependent on Chinese imports for many medical products. But does that necessarily mean that Biden will continue the policy of "decoupling” that has been announced by Trump?

Biden has already stated that he won’t simply reverse American punitive tariffs on Chinese products. He first wants to conduct a review of his predecessor’s China policy, while at the same time coordinating with America’s allies. However, the German government in Berlin fears that Biden will only see China as an opponent and that he might compel his partners to adopt his view. In every conversation with American counterparts, sighs a senior political official in Berlin, at some point you always hear: "Don't be deceived, they want to be No. 1."

"In some areas, our interests toward China differ from those of the U.S.," says Peter Beyer, the trans-Atlantic coordinator. "No decoupling, no Cold War – we want to keep talking to China," one foreign policy expert in Berlin says, summing up the German position. At the same time, the Germans also need the U.S. to apply pressure on China. It will only be possible to force Beijing to accept fair competition rules and refrain from systematic theft of intellectual property with Washington’s help.

It’s going to be a tightrope walk for both sides. However, in contrast to Trump, Biden is surrounded by people who are able to empathize with the worries and needs of the Germans. At the end of October, Biden adviser Julianne Smith presented a strategy paper in which she argued for close cooperation between Europe and the U.S. on China policy. In it, she warns that "there is strong resolve among many European officials for Europe to stake out its own China policy.”

The broadest consensus, though, is likely to be found on Iran policy. Both Biden and Merkel have a strong interest in reviving the nuclear agreement that Trump withdrew from in May 2018.

The question is whether there is sufficient strength to do this. Biden sees himself as facing off against a Republican Party that considers the nuclear deal to be a betrayal of Israel. But there is optimism in Berlin over the fact that Biden has nominated Jack Sullivan to be his national security adviser. Sullivan was one of the officials who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal. This week, Sullivan expressed guarded optimism a deal could potentially be revived. "He knows the Iranians, and he knows every detail of the negotiations,” says one senior political official in Berlin.

It would be a difficult undertaking, but not an impossible one. "I don’t think the door has closed for good yet,” says Vali Nasr, one of the world’s leading experts on Iran. He says Biden has a vested interest in establishing calm in the region. "Because if it collapses, that will be the U.S.’ problem.”

And Germany’s problem. For that reason alone, Berlin is hoping that the forces of reason will ultimately prevail. What makes Merkel and those close to her hopeful is that Biden is unlikely to dare to experiment, particularly when it comes to his foreign policy picks. It’s likely that his team will be comprised almost exclusively of people who are already old acquaintances of the Germans.

Secretary of State-designate Blinken may not be in the same league as heavy-hitters as Hillary Clinton or John Kerry, But he does have the trust of many top people in Berlin. Former Merkel foreign policy adviser Christoph Heusgen, for example, was already meeting socially with Blinken back when he was still a largely unknown adviser to the American president.

Berlin is also hoping that other nominees will be picked that can help build confidence in trans-Atlantic relations. Probably no ambassador who preceded him did as much in a short time to damage German-American relations as Richard Grenell. Trump’s emissary to Berlin acted so rudely that Chancellor Merkel made an unprecedented gesture: For more than two years, she refused to meet with the troublemaker  at the Chancellery.

Many in the German government are now hoping that Biden won’t simply send a rich campaign donor like Grenell to Berlin as ambassador, but will instead tap a person who is able to convince the Germans of the value of friendship with the U.S. again. Perhaps a person like Karen Donfried, who worked in the white House under Obama and now heads the German Marshall Fund in Washington. In addition to having a proven record in trans-Atlantic relations, she also got her master’s degree from Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University.

In contrast Grenell, Donfried would not only be one of the few American ambassadors to speak excellent German, but she would also be the first woman entrusted with America’s top job in Germany.

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