U.S.-German relations have been steadfast for decades. Trade, security and democratic values have played an integral part in solidifying political friendship between the two and creating a foundation that has endured to the present day. Germany is the strongest European member of NATO and a leader within the EU. Its role in supporting African and Syrian migrants making the perilous journey to freedom and safety is a testament to that particularly moral strength (despite serious logistical failures during that crisis). Recently, the election of U.S. President Donald Trump has ushered in an era of greater criticism of European partners and their relationships with the U.S.
Harsh criticism comes primarily from Trump’s obsession with NATO members putting 2% of their GDP towards defense spending. Germany spends approximately 1.2% on defense and another 0.7% on development aid. However, the Trump administration does not consider development spending to be a part of that 2% defense expenditure target. Trump took things a step further when he said Germany owed massive amounts of money to NATO, despite the purposeful lack of a debt collection arm of the security bloc, hence the oft used term ‘burden sharing’. Germany has focused its efforts within NATO on development and diplomacy, making the 2% expenditure a target to achieve over the next decade.
Germany has also received criticism over trade as well with President Trump referring to Germans as “very bad” in an attempt to make frustrations known with Germany’s trade surplus with the United States. A bilateral trade agreement was denied by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the basis of conducting major deals on a multilateral level with the EU. Essentially, the foundation on which the transatlantic relationship stands has become fractured due to a toxic political narrative, thus creating a vacuum to be exploited by a major U.S. rival: China.
The constant hounding on German defense spending and trade with the U.S. has weakened the usually strong political narrative that exists between the two. The crisis has allowed China to ease itself into the void created by these tensions. It has also put Germany on the defensive, not just from countering U.S. accusations on ‘debts owed’ to NATO, but to counter any thoughts of a German shift to Chinese business opportunities now finding their way into the discussion.
The Belt and Road Initiative shows a willingness from China to spend massive amounts of money on development and simply a desire to invest in opportunity. The Trump administrations very public protectionist policies have allowed China to shift some focus back to Europe in order to gain a foothold where the U.S. may become absent. In addition, any U.S. pullback from the transatlantic relationship would require alternative sources of capital for Germany to sustain growth. Pullback is unlikely, but the constant U.S. lamenting is leaving Germany no other option than to trade with the world’s second largest economy. German analysts are split between Germany finding alternative sources of trade as preparation for a U.S. shift away from transatlantic cooperation, while others argue that China would be a worse, more frustrating option. Either way, the mere discussion of China as an alternative trading partner is indicative of the vacuum created by President Trump’s continued and harsh complaints regarding German security and trade policy.
In response to the various criticisms and Chinese economic maneuvering, Chancellor Angela Merkel said “The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over,” also saying that Europe should “really take our fate into our own hands”. This response should not come as a surprise, but should still be cause for great concern if the transatlantic narrative does not see a seismic shift back to normality – and soon.
The Trump administration has yet to provide constructive criticism for its European allies, instead opting for a more pointed tone that has caused considerable uneasiness among EU and NATO members, particularly Germany. Defense spending and trade surplus are two primary issues that require greater discussion between the two to promote an understanding of current policy and long-term goals on both issues. The relationship strain has moved Europe to a more unified stance, but steps should be taken to mend the fractures in order to move forward once again as strong allies that face a variety of threats from terrorism, cyber, and an aggressive Russia.
The transatlantic relationship is not to be taken for granted, as two of the world’s largest economies have consistently committed to one another the promotion of free and democratic ideas and values along with steadfast military support and reliable trade partnerships. As discussed above, dialogue must take place between the U.S. and Germany regarding the most overt issues of trade and security – the foundation of the relationship. A softer tone by the U.S. administration would also benefit the two nations, as one constantly belittling the other and demanding payment for NATO defense is undiplomatic and unhelpful.
The demand in Europe is high for a unified transatlantic relationship. The challenges of the current geopolitical landscape do not halt for allies in dispute. Now is the time to restart a fair and trustworthy political narrative that refortifies the foundations of the transatlantic partnership.