Not since the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq have transatlantic relations been as strained as they are today. While some may look to blame Donald Trump’s “America first” policy as the primary cause of renewed tensions, we should not forget that there were problems under his predecessor, Barack Obama, too. The hacking of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone, for example, may not have garnered sustained press coverage in the US, but it did in Germany. There is a perception in Germany that American firms such as Google and Facebook simply aim to suck up as much data on their users as possible and to sell the data to advertisers, trampling on Germans’ beloved right to (data) privacy. The seemingly dead negotiations surrounding TTIP were also a cause for major protest in Germany. But this is not to say that the complaints are one-sided. Many in the US’ defense industry have long complained about Europe’s – especially Germany’s – seemingly lacking desire to invest in defense, a sentiment President Trump has been all too keen to tap into.
The average German knows far more about American culture and politics than the average American knows about Germany, and that makes sense, given the history of the 20th century. This knowledge, however, extends beyond a two-minute story on the nightly news or seeing a movie made in Hollywood; many young Germans have traveled to the US or even studied abroad there as either high school students or during their tertiary education. This has led Germans to value their relationship with the US more than vice-versa. While many young Americans hope to vacation in Europe at some point in their lives, there is a wide gap between spending a week at tourist sites and spending time – even if it’s just a summer – living in a country and getting to know its people.
In order to improve transatlantic relations, priorities need to be set on a number of key issues, the most important of which are trade and security. Germany and the US have a very large trade relationship, but given Germany’s membership in the European Union, there is a limit to what can be done at the bilateral level, especially given the current state of affairs in both Germany, given the large backlash against TTIP, and the US, with Donald Trump recently saying that Germans were “bad” because Germany has a large trade surplus with the US. That said, there are things that can be done. For example, Germany’s famed Mittelstand has benefitted for years from the country’s apprenticeship program. Why there have been multiple attempts to bring this over to the US, it has never been done so on a centralized basis. Setting up knowledge-exchange programs whereby representatives of large US-based manufacturers learn how the German apprenticeship program works could go a long way to improving on-the-job training in the US while also leading to new markets for the German Mittelstand.
The other obvious area for improved transatlantic relations is defense. While NATO has been in the news a lot in the past few months, it is not for the right reasons, as discord between the US and various NATO allies achieves nothing positive. It is hard for many average Americans to see the benefit of an alliance that, in their view, only consists of the US carrying the major share of the burden, both in terms of monetary costs and fighting capabilities. Given Europe’s and Germany’s past, however, it is a difficult for European politicians to sell increased defense spending to their people even in the best of times, which, economically speaking, many European countries are not in. That said, Germany’s economy is booming and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s “Schwarze Null” would not be threatened by a modest increase in spending to reach the agreed to goal of 2% of national GDP in defense spending.
Both key areas identified here are primarily political in nature: while trade undoubtedly enriches both countries as a whole, the rise of populism in the West and in Germany and the US in particular shows that there are still winners and losers from trade at the national level. If not dealt with in a constructive manner, those who have lost due to national trade are more likely to vote for extreme candidates looking to up-end the status quo, causing chaos and instability. On the defense side, we see the long shadow of the 20th century influencing German and European willingness to invest in national defense, leaving Americans feeling like they are being stuck with an expensive bill. In order to strengthen German-American ties, it is key that decision-makers, be they politicians, business leaders, or civil society advocates, know one another and interact with each other in order to better understand their partners across the Atlantic.
So where do we go from here? Advocates for the American-German relationship need to build bridges, to meet with one another and to exchange knowledge and best-practices. Vacationing in one another’s country is not enough, and issues such as trade, security, and cultural understanding can go a long way to making a sustained partnership. Political exchanges – both at the highest level and at the lower, career-bureaucratic level – are one way to nurture communication. Bringing business leaders together is another way to promote knowledge exchange and multilateral trade. Lastly, encouraging young people to learn the language (although this is mostly a need for Americans to learn German rather than the other way around) of key partners would help foster broader cultural understanding that is the backbone of sustained productive partnership, as evidenced by the relationship between the US and the UK.