8 November 2021

After Merkel: The Washington Outlook on US-German Relations

Alexander Brotman on Angela Merkel’s legacy as German chancellor and the prospects for US-German relations in a time of deep divisions in America

Alexander Brotman

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly once asked the question: ‘Who do I call if I want to call Europe?’ For the past 16 years, the answer to most in Washington was undoubtedly German Chancellor Angela Merkel. As Italy cycled through multiple fractious governments, the eurozone faced existential crisis and the UK voted to leave the EU, Merkel remained a constant presence. She was an ‘Iron Chancellor’, displaying a longevity that defied traditional political logic. In Washington, this stability in a sea of uncertainty meant that Merkel, whether she wished it or not, stood as more than just the leader of Germany, but as a defender of the European project.

Throughout her years in office, Merkel has been an advocate for more Europe – not for Germany to be the hegemon, but for the EU to develop the political and constitutional bases for the further development of its institutions: the EU as a forum not for German power but of German power, manifested through the hard work of deliberation and compromise with other Member States. Merkel has long maintained a deep respect for the transatlantic alliance and Europe’s role in it, only beginning to doubt Washington’s commitment to European security towards the end of her tenure. Now, as she prepares to leave office following this September’s German federal election, that alliance is strained amid geopolitical shifts to the Indo-Pacific. With a new government yet to be formed, Germany’s post-Merkel role and influence in Washington remain uncertain.

Merkel’s legacy on Germany in the EU

When Merkel came to power in 2005, the Iraq War was in its early years and the EU’s 2004 eastern enlargement was only a year old. Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, had clashed with US President George W Bush over Iraq and Germany’s unwillingness to contribute to the US mission. The German economy had been, until recently, labelled the ‘sick man of Europe’, averaging growth of only 1.2% per year from 1998 to 2005. With the euro’s introduction, initially in 1999, Germany arguably benefited the most of all the members of the eurozone. Research suggests that, through 2017, Germany’s GDP gained nearly €1.9 trillion, or around €23,000 per inhabitant, due to the impact of the single currency. The study finds that, in contrast, France and Italy saw equivalent reductions in their GDPs, while Greece had a marginal gain of only €2 billion.

The EU single market has also yielded great benefits for Germany. Following economic reforms initiated by Schröder, Germany replaced France as the EU’s most competitive economy heading into the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and the European debt crisis. Decreased barriers for German business, combined with Merkel’s austere approach to public finances, helped prepare Germany for global economic headwinds. Over the course of the Great Recession, it remained the EU’s economic powerhouse and, in sharp contrast to Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, did not suffer from an increase in unemployment. In her new book, The Chancellor, Kati Marton attributes Germany’s economic success to ‘long-ingrained habits’ of business, politics and culture that led to national resistance to the ‘debt-fueled consumption boom’ that was prevalent elsewhere in the EU.

Merkel’s response to the Great Recession defined her image in Europe, vilified by many for her harsh approach on austerity for debt-laden, mostly southern, EU members in exchange for bailout support. For Merkel, however, the commitment to fiscal responsibility for all EU Member States was a necessary fact of union. This approach contrasted with Merkel’s response to her final crisis in office – the coronavirus pandemic. With French President Emmanuel Macron, she spearheaded what eventually became Next Generation EU, the EU recovery fund to distribute hundreds of billions of euro in loans and grants to Member States, based in part on common EU borrowing. Berlin had long rejected the idea of commonly-issued EU or eurozone debt on a large scale on grounds of fiscal responsibility. However, the severity of the pandemic’s impact on the European economy, and the fear that inaction would severely damage public support for the EU in core Member States, helped shape Merkel’s decision.

In Washington, Merkel was viewed as an efficient and tactful manager committed to European unity and the transatlantic alliance throughout Europe’s successive crises and the exposure of structure weaknesses in other EU members. In doing so, she helped establish Germany as a powerful global actor with renewed influence. This success is no more evident than in the establishment of the P5+1 grouping (often called E3+3 in Europe) – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – for the original Iran nuclear programme negotiations. For the US, Merkel is likely to be remembered for building Germany into a status-quo power: afraid to lead solely on the basis of German power, but able to lead reluctantly in times of crisis – and to defend EU and global institutions and values when threatened. Germany under Merkel was often cautious of exercising its power and influence in the EU and more widely, but simultaneously determined to maintain the international system.

Merkel and the four US presidents

Despite differences over Iraq, Merkel established a strong working relationship with George Bush, the first of the four US presidents during her tenure. Bush credited Merkel with improving relations between the US and Germany after what he referred to as the ‘very icy’ Schröder years, in which he felt used as a ‘political pawn.’ The two disagreed over whether to grant a NATO membership application plan for Georgia and whether the Guantanamo Bay prison should remain open. However, their friendship endured, helped by Merkel’s admiration for George HW Bush and his role in promoting German reunification after the end of the Cold War.

With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the bilateral political relationship between the US and Germany grew stronger. The partnership between Merkel and Obama was pragmatic and guided by shared interests in economic recovery after the financial crisis, combating ISIL, facing Russia’s aggression and securing a nuclear deal with Iran. Obama’s star power in Germany, from his first visit as a candidate in 2008 to his farewell tour in 2016, supported a softer image of the US, not defined by military adventurism as in the Bush years.

Merkel’s greatest fissure with Obama came over revelations from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that the US Government had tapped into her private mobile phone – particularly hurtful for Merkel given her upbringing in the East German state, where surveillance of political opponents was rampant. According to Marton’s reporting, Merkel lambasted Obama for the Cold War-style tactics and strongly asserted that ‘friends do not spy on friends.’ Obama was frustrated by the revelations and viewed the incident as both a diplomatic and personal embarrassment. Despite growing anti-American sentiment in the German tabloid press, Merkel’s affinity for America and the pragmatic need to work with Washington prevailed. While Merkel and Obama mended fences and kept a close friendship, the incident was a reminder that the US’s large surveillance apparatus would always be at odds with German and European views on privacy.

In sharp contrast to Obama, Trump approached Germany with mistrust and antagonism, viewing Berlin as an adversary. His disdain for NATO, the EU, Germany’s trade surplus and even the presence of US troops in Germany was a marked departure from his predecessors. This approach led Merkel to make the extraordinary statement that Germany could no longer ‘completely depend’ on allies like the US. However, Germany was less eager to develop European strategic autonomy in response than France, as Macron called NATO ‘brain dead’. Trump’s exit from office, marked by his refusal to concede the election and his incitement of a violent insurrection against the US Capitol, left devastating scars on American democracy and shocked Europeans.

Merkel’s fourth and final US president, Joe Biden, came to the White House as a committed Atlanticist on paper, with a team of strong Europhiles and Atlanticists behind him. Unlike Trump, Biden has not questioned the relevance of NATO, criticised Germany’s trade surplus or viewed the EU as an adversary. However, Biden’s pro-EU credentials have been tested by the nature of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the AUKUS deal for sharing US nuclear-powered submarine technology with Australia. Although Biden has no ill will towards the transatlantic alliance, Kissinger’s question surely does not form the basis of his strategic decision making. For Biden, the answer to the question is clear, but the need to make the call to Europe is less pressing. Germany may stand for Europe, but Europe now occupies a lower rung in Washington’s grand strategy.

Germany’s approach to China

While not an Indo-Pacific power, Germany still has a role to play in advancing the EU’s collective interests there and in supporting the US’s aim of combatting China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. Germany is unlikely to take a direct military role, after its long engagement in Afghanistan and considering the recurring issues on military readiness, management and underfunding within the Bundeswehr. Berlin is currently unable to provide rapid reaction forces to hotspots around the globe, but it can contribute to support missions under the banner of NATO.

In August, the German frigate Bayern travelled from the North Sea through the Suez Canal to the South China Sea, with 200 troops aboard. The move was in support of US-led freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and, as outgoing German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer explained, ‘Germany has a strong interest in stability, security and rules-based politics in the region.’ Berlin may not be expected to play a pivotal role in the Indo-Pacific, but its presence is consistent with Germany’s commitment to the international system.

On hard power in the Indo-Pacific, Biden is more likely to make common cause with France and the United Kingdom than Germany, despite the significant (yet temporary) rift over AUKUS. However, on economic competition with China, Germany has a significant role to play. China has been its largest single trading partner since 2015. China views Germany ‘both economically and politically as a key partner in Europe’, according to the German Federal Foreign Office.

One indication of Beijing’s interest in Germany is its investment in the city of Duisburg, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese presence in Duisburg has been largely welcomed, seen as a means to lower comparatively high unemployment rates following deindustrialisation and to foster closer bilateral economic, academic and cultural links. Once the new German government is formed, Washington will surely closely monitor their bilateral relationship to assess how it affects Germany’s approach on China. Now that the US and the EU have resolved the Trump-era battle over steel and aluminium, the focus is on restricting access of ‘dirty steel’ from China to US and EU markets. The EU’s stance on this issue aligns with Biden’s, and its efforts to support a level playing field for both American and European consumers will be welcomed by the White House.

US-German relations after Merkel

Although the next German government is unlikely to be formed for several months, the most likely outcome is a ‘traffic light coalition’ of the Social Democrats, the Free Democratic Party and the Greens. If so, Germany will move further to the left and the issue of climate change will be critical for the incoming government. For the US, the bilateral relationship with Germany will remain important, but the horizon is uncertain. The next two election cycles, the 2022 midterm and 2024 presidential elections, will be pivotal to the US’s approach to Europe. Biden is politically much weaker than anticipated at this point in his presidency, and his low approval ratings suggest a Republican surge may occur in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2022. He has been hobbled by the Delta coronavirus variant, vaccination battles and the state of the US economy, as well as by infighting among Democrats that threatens his ‘Build Back Better’ agenda.

As Merkel prepares to depart the chancellery, the hard truth for Washington is that German democracy, while it faces its own challenges, is in a much stronger position than American democracy, when judged on the strength of institutions. American soft power remains strong, but the ability of the US to promote free and fair elections abroad has been weakened. Nevertheless, both nations broadly share a values-based approach to foreign policy in spirit, although the US is willing to bend the weight of those values when convenient to its interests and the stability of its extensive network of alliances and military bases. Cooperation remains possible, but Washington should not take Germany for granted or view it as an afterthought. Germany, and the wider EU, can pursue European strategic autonomy and work with China and others where US leadership is absent. The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan revealed Biden’s tendency to discount the transatlantic relationship for the sake of political expediency and to deliver on his domestic agenda. While Biden may not intentionally seek to disrupt relations with Germany, the risk is that an aggressive agenda at home further fractures relations abroad.

Biden often proclaims that ‘America is back’ and recommitted to the multilateralism that was lacking under his predecessor. Over the course of her chancellorship, Merkel witnessed the same country that formed a multiracial coalition to elect Barack Obama choose the nativist, conspiracy-minded Donald Trump as his successor. Her reflections of America will no doubt be shaped by the duelling imagery of the Trump-inspired Capitol insurrection and Obama’s address to adoring crowds in Berlin. Despite the recent events, her fondness for America will surely not have wavered, nor her admiration for its founding principles which first inspired her from the other side of the Iron Curtain. Merkel’s departure come at a time when the fragility of democracy and of the institutions of the rules-based international system has been exposed. In Washington, and in Europe, Merkel will be remembered as a chancellor who stood firm for her values during times when it seemed physically impossible not to wobble. That strength of character is today all too rare a quality, and one which those in Washington should take care to remember.

Alexander Brotman is a Washington-based political and corporate risk analyst

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