A few decades ago, Oskar Lafontaine, a leading German Social Democrat, published a book with the somewhat unsettling, if not apparently outright weird, title: “Fear of Friends” (“Angst vor den Freunden”). The year was 1983, and the occasion the impending deployment of American intermediate-range ballistic missiles on West German territory. “Fear of Friends” was part of a larger West German discourse within the country’s peace movement, which vigorously objected to the “logic” that for decades had informed the relations between NATO and Warsaw Pact.
This was the year West German radio stations played a sarcastic tune by a group with an equally sarcastic name, Geier Sturzflug (vulture’s nosedive), entitled “Besuchen Sie Europa solange es noch steht” — visit Europe as long as it’s still around. The title was sardonic and a perfect expression of the mood of the time. A few years later, the Soviets and Americans signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, in which both superpowers agreed to dismantle all land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km.
A New Nadir
The 1980s marked a low point in West German-American relations — a relationship which West Germany, ever since the beginning of the Cold War, considered vital to its national, and particularly security, interests. Things changed, of course, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the East German regime and the impending unification of the two German states. West Germany’s closest ally in Western Europe, France, was hardly enthusiastic about the prospect of being confronted with a unified Germany, home to some 80 million people. Unification meant that what had been a semi-sovereign state would regain its sovereignty. For France this meant that from one day to the other, the (French) tail was no longer able to wag the (West German) dog.
By contrast, the Americans, in the person of President George Bush Sr., were wholeheartedly on the side of the Germans. As the German president put it a year ago, German unification would have hardly been possible without the full support of the United States and particularly George Bush.
Three decades have passed since unification, and US-German relations have reached a new nadir. The quality of a relationship depends, to a large extent, how much the partners trust each other. And Germans — as a number of recent public opinion polls suggest — don’t trust their American counterparts. The results of these polls are quite dramatic. Take, for instance, a poll commissioned by Germany’s leading international relations journal at the beginning of this year. In response to the question which country posed the greatest threat to international security, more than 50% of respondents chose the United States, on par with Russia.
A couple of months earlier, in a major survey on transatlantic relations, three out of four respondents characterized US-German relations as bad or very bad. Less than half came out in favor of closer cooperation with the United States. The most striking, and disconcerting, findings, however, come from a study from February this year by the Atlantik–Brücke, Germany’s most important non-profit association charged with promoting transatlantic goodwill and understanding.
The results even rattled the editorial board of the Bildzeitung, Germany’s widely-read tabloid, accustomed to hyperbole and sensationalism, given they are its stock-in-trade. They were shocked to have to report that “almost half of the German population had more confidence in China than in the United States.” In fact, only a bit more than 20% considered the United States a “reliable partner,” and more than 50% said they wished Germany distanced itself more from the United States.
What accounts for this dramatic deterioration of the American image in Germany? One answer is obvious — Donald Trump. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that a large majority of the German public loathes the current American president. More importantly, however, many Germans consider him a threat. In late 2018, more than two thirds of the German population expressed fears that “Trump’s politics was rendering the world more dangerous.”
Blaming everything on Trump is to simplify
matters to the point of caricature. The current German disenchantment with the
United States has more profound roots. For decades, Germans, and Western
Europeans in general, have repeated the same mantra that the “transatlantic
partnership” with the United States was based on a community of shared values. With
the election of Donald Trump, this notion is difficult to sustain.
Trump’s presidency has made glaringly obvious what astute observers have known for some time, namely that the American pays réel is very different from the America Europeans are accustomed to see in TV sitcoms and Netflix series. It is an America that doesn’t gives a hoot about global warming, lionizing instead the likes of “Drill, baby, drill” Sarah Palin, that believes ObamaCare has turned the United States into a socialist republic, and that same-sex marriage is not only an oxymoron but an abomination that will inevitably invite divine punishment. And this is before Trump’s assault on free trade and his open support for white supremacy.
Any one of these issues would rile not only German sensibilities but also the country’s national interests. Germans are particularly sensitive to environmental issues, which explains the dramatic gains made by the Greens in recent elections. Equally important, Germany is a classical “trading state” whose economic success has to a large extent depended on free trade. For much of the postwar period, the United States not only promoted free trade but bolstered institutions designed to guarantee free trade.
The protectionist policies advanced by the Trump administration during the past few years pose a fundamental threat to free trade and, with it, to Germany’s vital interests. Hardly surprising, Germans express great concern over the current trade war between the United States and China.
But, I would suggest, the current transatlantic rift goes even further. Ever since the end of the Second World War, the United States promoted itself as the champion of liberal democracy. To be sure, more often than not, the way American administration acted in regions such as Central America had very little to do with its claims. Yet Western Europeans bought it. Today, with Donald Trump courting the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, there is little left to the imagination as to where his preferences are.
In fact, under Trump, the United States has inexorably slid down the greasy slope to “democratic illiberalism” along the lines of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. Under these circumstances, the United States has forfeited its role as a democratic model. Ironically, given its historical legacy, Germany might have to assume this role and responsibility.
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