As U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Berlin for a farewell visit on Wednesday, German policymakers were scrambling to develop a road map for dealing with the presidency of his successor, Donald Trump. Last week, in a congratulatory note to the president-elect, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gently conditioned Germany’s future cooperation with the United States on both countries’ adherence to a set of shared values: “democracy, freedom, [and] respect for the law and dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs.” It was a remarkable role reversal, and one that may set the tone for the relationship between Berlin and Washington in the years ahead: the leader of a country that owes its democracy to U.S. intervention was compelled to remind a U.S. president-elect of the fundamental principles of liberal government.
Some commentators have already declared Merkel the new “leader of the free world,” in light of Trump’s apparent unwillingness to fill a role traditionally occupied by the president of the United States. The characterization is fanciful. It is true that of the dominoes of liberal democracy still standing, Germany appears one of the most stable. But Trump’s election and the prospect of U.S. retrenchment that it has raised are ill-timed. Berlin is struggling to manage the political fallout from the refugee crisis and deal with the rise of Germany’s right-wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD). The European Union has also come under unprecedented strain, thanks to the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU, or Brexit; the unresolved problems in southern eurozone economies; and the political successes of the continent’s right-wing populists, who have taken power in Hungary and Poland and may soon do so in Austria and France.
In the coming years, it will be difficult enough for Germany to stem the populist tide within its borders while helping to stabilize the rest of Europe. Dealing with those issues will leave Berlin little additional bandwidth to lead the international liberal order. At best, Germany can engage in damage control, seeking to protect Western alliances and global institutions from the potential harms of Trump’s presidency.
THE STRENGTH OF THE LAW
Public opinion in Germany is clear about Trump’s victory. According to a recent poll conducted by the television outlet ZDF, 82 percent of Germans think Trump’s election is “bad” or “very bad.” Germans have been horrified by Trump’s nativism, misogyny, and racism, which dragged the U.S. presidential campaign into the gutter. To many Germans, the AfD’s leaders seem like public intellectuals in comparison.
As for Trump’s foreign policy, his claim that “Americanism, not globalism, will be [the United States’] credo” conflicts with the central thrust of German diplomacy: support for an open, rules-based international system with strong multilateral institutions. Trump’s disdain for NATO and protectionist tendencies terrify Germans who rely on the transatlantic alliance for their security and on free trade for their prosperity. And his blatant disrespect for the rule of law and support for torture feed into the disillusionment many Germans already feel over Washington’s “war on terror”: the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay is deeply rooted in the German public imagination, especially for the generation that came of age in the years after September 11. Anti-Americanism could not hope for a better catalyst.
The president-elect will likely increase the perception that the United States undermines the rule of law rather than supports it. In recent years, Merkel has given voice to that perception by repeating a phrase first issued by her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, to George W. Bush regarding the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: “It’s not the law of the strongest that applies here in Germany and in Europe, but the strength of the law.” Merkel will probably use similar rhetoric with Trump, who likely reminds her more of Russian President Vladimir Putin than of her counterparts in the West.
YOU CAN GO YOUR OWN WAY?
Never has the task of preparing for a new U.S. president been harder for U.S. allies than it is today. No one yet knows what U.S. foreign policy will look like under Trump. The president-elect vacillated among often contradictory positions during his campaign and has suggested that unpredictability should be a key foreign policy principle. For its part, Germany should prepare for the worst-case scenario: that Trump will do immense harm to the United States’ alliances and the multilateral institutions and agreements to which it belongs. The best way to plan for such a scenario will be for Germany to ensure that its engagement with Washington is based on clear principles while shoring up its ability to look after its own security.
First, Germany should engage Trump and the administration he is putting together, as it would with any other presidential administration. At the same time, Berlin should deepen its ties with Republicans in the U.S. Congress who are committed to preserving the United States’ alliances and global role, since they, along with Democrats in the Senate, will be integral to checking the worst of Trump’s instincts. Merkel should be in no rush to visit the United States to meet with Trump, however. Instead, she should wait for his administration to take shape and decide on its foreign policy priorities. Next July’s G-20 meeting, which will be held in Hamburg, will provide a good opportunity for a first encounter on German soil.
In the meantime, Germany should work hard to ensure a unified European stance toward the United States, which under Trump will likely seek to play EU countries against one another in an attempt to weaken the EU’s unity on trade policy and other key issues. That will be tough. The United Kingdom is already a lost cause: Prime Minister Theresa May is anxious to rebuild the country’s special relationship with the United States as it prepares for Brexit. And populist EU leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, are keen on ingratiating themselves with a U.S. president whom they regard as a kindred spirit.
If the Trump administration suggests new approaches to vexing foreign policy challenges, such as the conflict in Syria, Germans should give it a fair hearing. At the same time, German leaders should signal that if Trump is determined to undo key multilateral agreements, then Europe is prepared to go its own way—for example, by continuing to trade with Iran even if Washington backs out of the multilateral nuclear deal concluded with that country last year.
To protect the West’s reputation as a credible international actor, its leading powers must expose abuses of liberal democratic principles, including those committed by the United States. To that end, if the Trump administration suppresses the civil liberties of minorities or follows through on Trump’s promise to reinstate torture, Germany’s opposition should be forceful and explicit. German and European nongovernmental organizations committed to liberal principles should work closely with their counterparts in the United States to defend their shared values. Increasing the volume and quality of people-to-people exchanges, such as study abroad programs, and deepening the dialogue between foundations and civic groups in Europe and those in the United States could also help the transatlantic alliance weather the storm that Trump’s presidency will likely bring.
On some fronts, Trump’s election could provide a healthy shock, forcing Germans and Europeans to address the aspects of the transatlantic alliance in need of repair. For too long, European states have relied on U.S. security guarantees instead of investing in their own defense. Trump’s threat to walk away from NATO should prompt Europeans to finally get serious about their own security. European states should invest heavily in cybersecurity; pool more of their military and political resources and introduce joint military procurement; and beef up their intelligence agencies while improving governmental oversight and intelligence sharing.
What has been lacking until now is the political will to get serious about those issues. Here, Germany can lead by example. Merkel has already committed Germany to spending two percent of its GDP on defense, a benchmark NATO established in 2006. Other EU states are reversing cuts in defense spending. They should use those additional resources to increase the combat readiness of their militaries—a key weakness for many European countries. If Trump proves serious about abandoning U.S. defense guarantees, European states may be compelled to rethink their nuclear postures. Berlin will need to consider whether to develop a European nuclear umbrella based on French and British capabilities. Germany should also increase its resilience against the influence of authoritarian states such as China and Russia. It should improve its cybersecurity capabilities and its readiness to confront misinformation and leaking campaigns (such as the one orchestrated by Russia during the U.S. election), and it should impose greater costs on the Western actors that enable authoritarian influence-peddling. That also means going against the White House if the elevation of Stephen Bannon, a right-wing extremist and former media executive, to a key role in the Trump administration leads to U.S. support for right-wing groups in Europe.
Marine Le Pen at a rally near Tours, France, March 2015.
At the same time, Germany and Europe should work with liberal democratic states to protect as much of the Western alliance and multilateral institutions from the effects of Trump’s election as they can. For example, now is a good time for Europe to deepen its ties with Canada, which is currently Germany’s strongest ally beyond Europe and the United States and has, in the figure of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the perfect political foil to Trump. Given Germany’s and Europe’s many crises, there will be little political energy left for pursuing many of the reforms that global institutions so urgently need, such as the creation of a global regime for refugees and migration. Still, Germany should lay out an agenda for what should be done in better times.
All of those efforts will be futile if Germany and Europe fail to stop the illiberal tide at home. Trump’s election should serve as the last warning to Europe’s centrist politicians and citizens alike to muster the passion necessary to contain the populist right. All eyes should be on next spring’s French election: the European project will not survive if Marine Le Pen is elected French president. Germany should play a more constructive role in addressing the eurozone crisis and relinquish its austerity fetish, which would allow centrist candidates in France to make a better case for the benefits of the European project. A more conciliatory stance on austerity could also help Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, new ally for Berlin, weather a constitutional referendum in early December, since it would prove wrong those critics of the prime minister who argue that the EU and the euro are imperial German projects that damage Italy’s interests.
In February, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that “the forces pulling us apart in Europe are so enormous” that it would be a “great achievement” to have the same EU in a year’s time. Likewise, if in four years a less divisive candidate assumes the U.S. presidency and the EU remains intact, much will have been won. Just after Trump’s victory, the front page of the Berlin tabloid B.Z. carried a distressing message: the U.S. election, it suggested, marked “the night the West died.” Germany should do everything it can to prove that claim wrong.
By Thorsten Benner