Progressive Futures

Germany faces Trump with new-found self-confidence

3 February 2017

Expect German-American relations to cool over the coming months as September's elections draw closer

Robert Schutte

Sometimes, a week feels like an eternity. On 19 January, on his last day in office, Barack Obama honoured his close friend German chancellor Angela Merkel by choosing her as the last foreign leader to call before leaving the Oval Office. “Given their eight years of friendship and partnership, the president noted that it was fitting that his final call with a foreign leader was with Chancellor Merkel, and he wished her the very best going forward”, the White House said. Nine days later, it was Donald Trump who spoke with her as the newly elected president of the United States.

Since the new administration came into office on 20 January, everything seems different. German-American relations have gone from close and trustful to cautious pessimism. This comes as no surprise after a presidential campaign in which Trump lashed out frequently against the German government. His main target: Berlin’s open-door refugee policy and the country’s alleged “unfair” exporting prowess.

For Germany, relations to America have always been a constituent part of its foreign policy. From international security to trade, there is a lot at stake for a country that is still a military middleweight but the world’s export champion. Free trade, liberal international institutions and an unequivocal integration in the west are thus essential reasons of state. After all we have heard from the Trump administration so far – ripping up trade agreements, introducing a racist travel ban, flirting with torture – this puts the EU’s largest country in a tricky situation.

Following election night, Berlin took a cautious approach with its congratulatory note to the president-elect. Instead of rushing to be among the first to talk to Trump, the German government offered the president-elect cooperation under the condition of adherence to liberal values: democracy, freedom, and respect for the law and dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political beliefs. This was an unprecedented move. Could it really be that Berlin was lecturing Washington on democracy and civil rights? So it seems. This is indeed a remarkable role reversal that highlights Germany’s serious concerns about president Trump’s plans and rhetoric. And it testifies to a new-found German self-confidence. Both in its external affairs as well as its domestic political culture.

Internationally, Berlin has assumed a bigger sense of responsibility over the past years. During the Iran negotiations, Germany played an important role in the talks between Teheran and the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1). When the crisis in Ukraine escalated into a full-blown armed conflict with Russian sponsored separatists, it was a Franco-German tandem that took the diplomatic lead in the Minsk peace negotiations with Ukraine and Russia, while the US and the UK stayed at the sidelines. And when hundreds of thousands refugees sought protection from mass-atrocities in Syria and Iraq, it was Germany who diffused a developing humanitarian crisis in the heart of Europe by opening its borders.

Besides a more proactive diplomatic role, something changed in the country’s political culture as well. Due to its Nazi past and the Holocaust, most Germans preferred to be “post-patriotic” or to find solace in a supra-national European identity. If at all, “made in Germany” or a success of the national football team in an international tournament could be a legitimate reason for some brief and coy patriotic moments. But beyond that, there seemed to be only few things to patriotically relate to. The nation remained an illegitimate object of personal identification. In recent years, this has been changing.

In a Europe besieged by populists and rightwing demagogues, Germans have developed a heretofore unseen sense of pride in their open society and constitutional democracy. When the refugee situation intensified, thousands of helpers welcomed refugees at train stations, provided them with food, clothes and toys, shared their apartments, started sport clubs and integration classes for refugee kids, and protested against right-wing violence. For many, this humane Willkommenskultur (welcome culture) re-created a positive self-identification with Germany. When a senior official of the rightwing Alternative für Deutschland party recently complained that the Germans were the only people to place a “memorial of shame” (ie the Holocaust memorial) at the heart of their capital, this caused an outcry and condemnation across the whole of society. Obviously, many Germans take pride in the enlightened – and, compared to many other countries, unique – way to account for the dark chapters of its past. Thus, German identity has increasingly become a point of positive reference as being liberal, democratic and open-minded. Something that people from left to right have started to embrace as never before in democratic Germany’s recent history.

It is this background of increased liberal self-confidence which explains Berlin’s seemingly self-assured and unafraid approach to dealing with president Trump. So far, the government has been unusually outspoken about events in the United States. For example, with regards to the travel ban, Chancellor Merkel noted that the “fight against terrorism in no way justifies a general suspicion against all people who share a certain faith”. And the new foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel remarked diplomatically that he sees no need to make America great again because America already is a great country.

In Berlin, many hope that president Trump will sooner or later proceed to “business as usual” once the tumultuous first weeks of office have passed. It is questionable though that the country can continue to stand its principled ground without provoking an open confrontation if the administration continues to disrupt an international order on which Germany’s wellbeing depends.

The looming parliamentary elections in September 2017 will certainly turn up the heat. Merkel’s social democratic contender, former president of the European parliament Martin Schulz, holds no government office and will thus be able to score points by being more outspoken on the Trump administration than an acting chancellor can be. During a recent campaign event, he gave a taste of what is to come by arguing the Trump’s travel ban was “un-American“. In recent polls, Schulz has boosted approval ratings of his social democratic party and become a real threat to a Merkel’s fourth term as chancellor. If this trend holds, the election will become an open race. Merkel will have to react and confront the new US administration more openly. Expect German-American relations to cool over the coming months.

Image credit: The White House