The End of an Era

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Since 1945, a chief foreign policy objective of the Soviet Union, and then Russia, has been to divide Germany and the United States. Initially, the Soviets pursued this strategy in a literal sense, by unilaterally creating a communist puppet state in East Germany. Then, Moscow attempted to prevent the Western allies access to Berlin. In 1961, the Soviets built a wall dividing the city. Moscow undertook all these gambits to pressure America into conceding that preserving a free and independent Federal Republic of Germany, strongly anchored in the West, was not worth the effort. Yet Soviet attempts to drive a wedge between the United States and Germany had the opposite effect. From the heroic Berlin Airlift (which kept the Western half of the city alive throughout an 11 month-long Soviet blockade) to landmark speeches by John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), Soviet aggression only hardened American resolve.

Throughout the Cold War, a longing for strategic nonalignment, pacifism, deeply-ingrained cultural anti-Americanism and postwar guilt towards the Soviet Union all provided fertile ground for Kremlin efforts at neutralizing West Germany. Due to his policy of Westbindung, or binding Germany to the West, Konrad Adenauer earned himself the sobriquet “Chancellor of the Allies” from his political opponents. The Federal Republic’s joining NATO was hotly contested; many Germans preferred reunification with the East and neutrality on Josef Stalin’s terms to taking the Western side in what JFK termed a “Twilight Struggle.” Mass German resistance to American foreign policy came to a head with the Euro-Missile crisis of the early 1980’s, when the German Bundestag barely approved the positioning of nuclear-tipped NATO warheads on its territory. To this day, the largest demonstrations in postwar German history were those protesting this deployment.

Given its sheer size and geographic location at the center of East-West confrontation, Germany was America’s most important European ally during the Cold War. And, long after the Cold War ended, this partnership remains our most important in continental Europe. Though it is no longer the American protectorate of yore, Germany is still heavily reliant upon the United States for its security and economic well-being, and the United States continues to station tens of thousands of soldiers on German soil.

Russia aims at arousing the anti-American sentiment

And as it once again seeks to divide the West against itself, post-Soviet Russia has revived its efforts to split Germany from the United States. The most sophisticated, recent example of this strategy was the Edward Snowden imbroglio, which, while intended to harm the reputation of the United States generally, was aimed specifically at arousing anti-American sentiment in Europe’s biggest country and economic powerhouse. Of all the nations in the world where the National Security Agency conducts operations, it was those in Germany (like the alleged hacking of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone) that elicited the most outrage. This outsized reaction was explainable not only by unique German sensitivities concerning surveillance matters, but a deliberate strategy on the part of Snowden’s handlers in Russia to ensure the maximum possible damage to American interests.      

Generations of American statesmen, spies, businessmen, non-profit executives, academics, Jewish leaders, and countless others (this author, a recipient of fellowships from two leading German foundations, included) have worked tirelessly to maintain and strengthen the German-American partnership through good times and bad. Those efforts are now in serious jeopardy thanks to President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly gone out of his way to alienate Germany. Throughout the campaign, Trump gratuitously attacked Merkel, who is very popular among her countrymen, stating that she had “ruined” Germany through her refugee policy. Shortly before swearing the oath of office, he said in an interview that the European Union is a “vehicle for Germany,” when, in reality, it was created largely to tame it. Key members of his administration have repeatedly accused Berlin of currency manipulation, this, in spite of the fact that Germany uses the euro, whose value is set by the European Central Bank. Trump’s White House meeting with Merkel will be remembered first for his conspicuous refusal to shake the Chancellor’s hand, followed by a humiliating joke at her expense regarding the aforementioned NSA surveillance, a scandal Merkel could have easily exploited to her own advantage by manipulating anti-American sentiment but wisely chose not to do, she being one of Europe’s most innately and resolutely pro-American leaders.     

And what has Merkel received for her steadfast commitment to the transatlantic partnership? The final indignity came last week at the gathering of NATO members in Brussels, where Trump explicitly refused to endorse Article V, the alliance’s collective defense clause, and continued to hector members for not paying enough on defense. This, after months and months of careful explanation to Trump on the part of European leaders and members of his own staff that, while most NATO states do need to increase their defense expenditure, the increased funds will not be deposited into the U.S. Treasury. Trump also reiterated his specific attacks on Germany, specifically its trade surplus with the United States, calling the country “bad, very bad.”

Trump is the living embodiment of many negative stereotypes

In the eyes of most Germans (and Europeans for that matter), the American president is a mentally unstable braggart not to be trusted. For the anti-American segment of the German electorate, Trump is a vindication, the living embodiment of every negative stereotype it holds about America and Americans (i.e. that we are militaristic, uncultured, money-obsessed bumpkins). He is also a political liability for any European leader who stands too close to him; see, for instance, Martin Schulz’s attack on Trump in defense of Merkel’s honor. And so it perhaps should not have come as a surprise that the Chancellor, speaking at a campaign rally in Bavaria over the weekend (Germany goes to the polls in federal elections this September), would say the following in reference to both the United States and pro-Brexit Britain: “The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent. That’s what I experienced over the past several days.”

Merkel’s statement took many observers by surprise, as well it should. To varying extents, German leaders have always paid obeisance to the transatlantic relationship, and here is a German leader, and a pro-American one at that, seeming to give it short shrift. At the same time, we should avoid reading too much into these comments. Postwar German-American relations have seen far worse days, like in the run-up to the Second Iraq War when Gerhard Schroeder ran a federal election campaign on anti-American themes. Moreover, the sort of European self-reliance Merkel called for is not mutually exclusive from a positive relationship with the United States. Indeed, Merkel is right to say that Europe should not be so dependent upon America, which is not the same thing as saying it should be completely independent, as some are misinterpreting her comments. As Matthew Karnitsching of Politico writes, Merkel’s remarks were fully “in keeping with her agenda to push European integration forward, a goal she believes the election of Emmanuel Macron as French president has put within reach.”

Trump is destabilizing Europe from within and without

Still, Merkel’s comments are not what we would have expected her to make had Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, or any other mainstream candidate won the presidency. Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin and purely transactional view of NATO are utterly new, and highly disturbing, components of an American presidential administration. For the past 70 years, no matter who occupied the Oval Office, Europeans could generally be assured that he would be suspicious of Russian motives and a steadfast believer in the purpose of the Atlantic Alliance. Not Trump. As I foretold three months ago, Trump’s election is “destabilizing Europe from within and without,” putting into question long-held assumptions about the continent’s postwar security architecture, a fundamental component of which is the American commitment to Europe and Germany in particular. Even Edward Snowden recognized the gravity of Merkel’s remarks, noting them as an “era-defining moment” (whether the Russian-sheltered defector was being ironic or is entirely oblivious to his own role in helping to bring about that moment is unclear.)

Of course, Germany still needs America for its security and economic prosperity, and that will continue regardless of who is in the White House. But Angela Merkel’s distancing of her nation from America is only the natural, and tragic, response to an historically illiterate, amoral president unable to distinguish ally from an adversary.

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