The U.S.-German rapport: The transatlantic X-factor

As seen from the U.S., Germany is consumed by internal political strife and incapable of creating valuable relations. So, for the next few years, Washington intends to manage bilateral relations on a transactional basis. At the same time, President Trump has reemphasized the U.S.-UK partnership and put more stock on ties with Central Europe.

Picture of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel
June 5, 2019: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump meet for a D-Day commemoration in Portsmouth, England, but the encounter was little more than a photo opportunity. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The U.S. no longer looks at Germany as its primary political partner in Europe and NATO
  • Washington’s strategy is not centered on the European Union, where Germany is the leading player, but on bilateral ties in Europe
  • Although the two countries will still cooperate closely in some areas, their policies will diverge in many others

Few questions are more pressing in transatlantic affairs than the future of the German-American relationship.

These days, the United States no longer presumes that Germany will be its leading partner in the transatlantic system. Instead, Washington’s assessment is that internal political struggles will distract and confound German efforts to exercise decisive leadership. Rather than sharing vision and direction, the two countries are more likely to manage their relations over the next few years on a more transactional basis. That said, there are few signs of fissures and gaps that could eventually create unbridgeable rifts in the transatlantic alliance.

Changed focus

U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the United Kingdom and Normandy, France, for the 75th D-Day anniversary was instructive in this regard. In the UK and the president’s subsequent short visit to Ireland, the American leader made clear once again that the U.S. strategy for dealing with the transatlantic community is not centered on the European Union. That is crucial for Germany, which continues to remain a dominating force in EU policymaking.

President Trump emphasized the U.S.-UK special relationship with a fulsomeness that has not been heard from an American president in over a decade. He reemphasized U.S. support for Brexit and the rapid pursuit of a trade agreement with the UK. His visit was clearly aimed at a future Conservative government to follow the departure of Theresa May as prime minister. The U.S. wants to elevate the rank of its partnership with the UK in the transatlantic community.

Among the other EU member states, the U.S. has looked to leverage relationships in places other than Berlin. Mr. Trump, for instance, routinely exchanges phone calls with President Emmanuel Macron of France. The U.S. has particularly invested in bilateral ties with Poland. Polish President Andrzej Duda visited the White House in June – not his first call there.

In other areas the U.S. and Germany will likely proceed as before.

Washington’s shifting foreign policy focus has significant implications for areas in which the U.S. and Germany differ. Most notable is its policy toward Iran. Berlin remains committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the eight-country agreement on limiting Iran’s nuclear program negotiated under the Obama administration. While British Prime Minister May reaffirmed British support for the JCPOA, Washington believes a new conservative team in London will join with the U.S. against the deal. 

In other areas, however, the U.S. and Germany will likely proceed as before. Most significantly, this would include continued support for Ukraine, maintaining sanctions on Russia and sustaining the promise of NATO’s enlargement.

Cooperation between Washington and Berlin could even intensify on some issues. This is what will probably happen in the Western Balkans, where the U.S. is frustrated at its failure to broker negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. There seems to be a new desire on the American side to engage Germany in crafting a sustainable path forward.  

Finally, some crucial questions remain open – principally, the alignment of U.S. and European positions on China. The debate over the participation of Huawei, China’s leading producer of telecommunications equipment, in developing 5G networks in Western countries is just the most prominent transatlantic discussion of the risks and opportunities posed by Chinese investments. For policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, responding to the Chinese challenge is still very much a work in progress of geopolitical governance.

Nord Stream rift

On energy security, U.S. and German policies seem almost entirely at odds. The American side remains firmly opposed to Nord Stream 2, the German-Russian joint venture to build a second gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, and continues to threaten to impose sanctions on Germany. Washington has largely abandoned hopes that the project would be stalled in the EU regulatory process.  

That said, changes to the EU’s so-called gas directive (approved earlier in 2019 and coming into force this summer) could also delay the Nord Stream expansion. The revised directive requires separate ownership of gas and transmission infrastructure. It also extends the EU’s gas liberalization rules to new offshore pipelines from non-EU countries. However, the company building Nord Stream 2 is demanding a derogation from the new rules on the grounds that they are discriminatory and jeopardize billions of euros in investments made before the EU directive. A lengthy court battle can be expected.

Until recently, Germany has seemed mostly indifferent to the Three Seas Initiative (a forum of 12 EU states located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas), which includes several energy projects among its plans for integrating regional infrastructure. The U.S., in contrast, enthusiastically endorsed the initiative, sending a cabinet-level official to the most recent annual summit in Ljubljana, Slovenia. However, German attitudes on the matter may be shifting. Last year, Berlin broached the possibility of joining the group. Not all the participating countries seemed interested in this prospect. 

Military friction

Another area where the U.S. and Germany seem clearly at odds is defense planning. There are particularly sharp divisions over burden-sharing. Pressing for more equitable military outlays among the alliance participants has been a signature component of President Trump’s platform for collective defense. Yet there are no signs that Germany intends to honor its NATO commitment to increase defense spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2024.  

President Trump decides personally on when and how he uses tariff threats.

Spending targets are not the only point of contention. Berlin remains the most determined advocate for an independent EU security component– a European force not reliant on NATO for collective defense. In contrast, the Trump administration is becoming increasingly hostile to the very notion of such an independent entity. The administration believes that the project would only add overhead without bringing additional capability. In addition, there is concern in Washington that an independent European military would compete with NATO and be used as an excuse to practice protectionism, excluding U.S. defense firms from European markets. 

Tellingly, Spain’s leading newspaper reported a senior U.S. State Department official as remarking that if the EU does not amend the proposed rules of the European Defense Fund (EDF) and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) – an initiative to create a future EU military – Brussels may have to make do without U.S. weapons or NATO aid. 

Trade bugbear

Finally, trade remains a huge question mark. One recent analysis framed the odds of the U.S. significantly increasing tariffs on European auto imports at 40 percent. The soundness of that estimate is questionable; everyone seems to be guessing. President Trump is prone to using sanctions threats to drive trade reciprocity, most notably with China. He also recently threatened Mexico with tariffs over a dispute on border security and illegal migration. The president decides personally on when and how he uses tariff threats and when he will implement, delay, adjust or remove them. While tariffs are a great unknown, the prospects for near-term progress on a comprehensive U.S.-EU trade deal are nil. Instead, the issue will probably stay a bugbear in the U.S.-German relationship, thwarting the desire on both sides to achieve sustained, strong economic growth.

The politics of the two nations also do not mesh well. Despite the deep partisanship in the U.S. and continued skepticism over Mr. Trump and his attitude toward the transatlantic community or relations with Russia, the U.S. looks, frankly, the more politically stable of the two. Even with partisan rancor unabated, the political authority of the American president seems unassailable. A recent national poll found a majority of voters expected him to be reelected. In contrast, Germany’s political future appears murkier, buffeted by contradictory impulses among leading parties on the nation’s place in the international community. Some favor closer relations with Russia; others look for more significant German and European strategic autonomy. 



Germany’s quest for regional leadership is further complicated by the ambiguous results of the European Parliament elections. Both the campaign and the makeup of the new parliament showed Europe’s political center being assailed from both the right and the left. Meanwhile, Berlin and Paris are increasingly absorbed in squabbles over leadership in the European community. To make matters worse, another general election in Germany sometime before 2021 is not entirely out of the question. All this means the U.S. will need to wait and see how Germany sorts out conflicting visions of its future role.

Washington’s strategy for dealing with Berlin seems to be increasingly transactional. Rather than worry about the state of the relationship overall, the Trump administration seems content to criticize Germany when its position clashes with that of the U.S. – and to work together quietly when it suits American interests.

The most likely future scenario is that the U.S. will seek to offset tense relations with Germany by strengthening bilateral links elsewhere. On almost no point of disagreement with Berlin is the U.S. likely to make concessions or press for compromise. Instead, Washington seems content to let the differences simmer, work together where possible, and call out German behavior where disparities in policy matter. For its part, Berlin seems content to take a similar course. At least for now, this strategy allows both sides to go along and get along. 

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