“In battle, nothing is ever as good or bad as the first reports of excited men would have it.”
—Field Marshal Viscount Slim
Let’s hope that same caution applies to presidential transition geopolitics too, because the first reports from the Trump transition are very bad indeed.
Among America’s oldest and truest allies, the reaction to the election of Donald Trump has ranged from horror to terror, sometimes including large elements of each. Nowhere, though, does the reaction look more dangerous than inside the most powerful state on the European continent, Germany.
The morning after Donald Trump’s victory, German Chancellor Angela Merkel released a cooly diffident pledge of cooperation to the new American president. The key passage:
Germany’s ties with the United States of America are deeper than with any country outside of the European Union.
Germany and America are bound by common values—democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.
Notice here first the downgrading of the U.S.-German relationship to second place behind Germany’s EU partners. The longstanding brainteaser of German politics—which comes first, NATO or the EU?—has suddenly been answered by the Trump election, and against the United States.
Notice second the conditional quality of Merkel’s congratulation. Future cooperation with the United States government will be “based on these values,” opening the possibility that a deviation from such values will abridge or terminate cooperation.
Notice finally who will be judging whom. The “offer” functions as an implied threat: If Donald Trump fails to meet the values-standard defined and assessed by Angela Merkel, the “offer” will be withdrawn.
It’s quite a thing for a German chancellor to impose conditions on the U.S.-Germany relationship. During the Cold War, West Germany depended on the United States for security against the Soviet Union. In the fateful years 1989-1991, American policy enabled German reunification despite the qualms of other close U.S. allies, France and Britain. (A Frenchman, Francois Mauriac, is credited with the quip, “I love Germany so much, I am glad there are two of them.”) But since 1991, Germany has not needed the United States so much—and Germans have felt freer to express old resentments of their former protector.
It was fashionable a decade ago to blame the weakening of the German-U.S. alliance on George W. Bush. Yet even under Barack Obama, personally so popular in Germany, the German-U.S. relationship has not recovered its former closeness. Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelation that the National Security Agency had listed Angela Merkel’s personal cellphone number in a database triggered a spasm of outrage among German political elites. In June 2014, Germany took the unprecedented step of expelling the senior U.S. intelligence official in Berlin, even announcing the decision on Twitter.
Never mind that it remains unclear whether anyone actually listened to Merkel’s calls. Never mind that the ensuing German investigation compromised more high-level secrets than had ever been at risk in Merkel’s calls. Never mind that it emerged in 2014 that German intelligence had scooped up a call from Hillary Clinton’s phone.
Under Barack Obama as under his predecessor, the two countries have drifted apart for reasons bigger than personality or policy. Barack Obama’s claim at his November 14 press conference that he worked more closely with Angela Merkel than with any other foreign leader seems intended less as a description of reality than as a flattering final appeal to Germans to sustain the battered old partnership. On issues from the defense of Ukraine against Russian invasion to the right way to accelerate European economic growth, Obama and Merkel have disagreed more than they have agreed. Obama’s Syrian policy has accelerated the Middle Eastern migration flow that has ripped the European Union and smashed German political consensus.
Yet even in the face of all these strains and difficulties, German friends of the United States have retained one clinching argument and decisive asset on their side of the debate: a wide and deep public intuition that people highly critical of the United States were probably animated by extremist and illiberal ideas. So long as the Germans most hostile to the U.S. alliance espoused various shades of fascism and communism, then the mighty German middle would cling determinedly to the U.S. alliance as a bulwark of stability and liberalism.
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency up-ends German political assumptions about the United States, at a time when Germans are already ready to have those assumptions up-ended.
The mighty German middle is becoming less mighty, discredited by Angela Merkel’s flung-open door to Middle Eastern refugees. Anti-refugee, pro-Putin forces are gaining strength at the expense of the parties of the center. Two-thirds of Germans oppose a fourth term for Merkel.
Merkel has backed herself into a crazy political dead-end. She is identifying an open-door immigration policy as the foundation of her kind of liberalism—even as, in reality, large-scale immigration is helping destroy liberalism across the countries of Europe, and even within Germany itself. Warning that a Trump-led United States might not espouse values of democracy, freedom, the rule of law, and equal human dignity amounts to a passport for Germany out of the U.S. alliance.
Ominously, the U.S.-Germany rift coincides with the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union—an exit that will greatly weaken London’s clout versus Berlin. Britain will need to renegotiate access to the EU market; Germany will have power to approve or refuse. The post-1945 vision of a secure and liberal Germany joined in an intimate partnership to the United States and the United Kingdom will fail. In its place: a Germany more distant from its former English-speaking allies, more vulnerable to an aggressive Russia, more polarized and afflicted by extremism in the wake of Merkel’s welcome of almost 2 million Middle Eastern and North African migrants. It’s not all Donald Trump’s fault. But he has in every way already made the situation gravely worse.
Even if the new Trump administration walks back the president-elect’s campaign-season musings about not honoring America’s NATO commitments; even if we can all somehow overlook that Trump was aided to the presidency by a Russian intelligence operation; even if the Trump shock inoculates French voters against voting for the even more extreme (and Russian-financed) National Front in 2017 presidential elections—even hoping all this, the U.S.-led alliance to defend Germany and European democracy has already been horribly damaged. All who cherish this friendship that has preserved the peace of the continent must wonder whether maybe this time, Field Marshal Slim’s reassurances are misplaced: Things really are as bad as the first reports suggest.