Germans have never liked President Donald Trump, and the backlash against his actions is stronger than ever after he pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal last week. But there’s a growing gap between the German establishment and German voters: The former may be anti-Trump but the latter are increasingly anti-American.
German Chancellor Angel Merkel vented her frustration with Trump on Friday in a speech in the North Rhine-Westphalia city of Muenster, saying his Iran decision “undermines trust in the international order.” “If everybody does just what they want, that’s bad news for the world,” Merkel said.
This outburst coincided with one of the most provocative covers Germany’s highly respected weekly Der Spiegel ever published — an outstretched middle finger bearing Trump’s likeness, with the English caption, “Goodbye, Europe!” Spiegel’s editorial to go with this image called on Europe to join the anti-Trump resistance:
“The West as we once knew it no longer exists. Our relationship to the United States cannot currently be called a friendship and can hardly be referred to as a partnership. Trump has adopted a tone that ignores 70 years of trust. He wants punitive tariffs and demands obedience. It is no longer a question as to whether Germany and Europe will take part in foreign military interventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is now about whether trans-Atlantic cooperation on economic, foreign and security policy even exists anymore. The answer: No.”
These are strong words. But of course, there was nothing in Merkel’s speech about dissolving Germany’s alliance with the U.S., and the Spiegel editorial only calls on Europe to “begin preparing for a post-Trump America and seek to avoid provoking Washington until then.” The German establishment appears to believe that Trump is the problem and that the time-honored European approach — waiting for the problem to go away, as Europe is already doing with its conciliatory plan to stave off Trump’s threatened steel and aluminum tariffs, is the best bet.
Europe’s defense dependency on America also serves as a reality check. No matter how many times Merkel may tell Trump that Germany plans to raise its military spending to the 2 percent of gross domestic product demanded by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, her government’s current budget proposal increases it only to 1.29 percent of GDP in 2019 from 1.24 percent this year — and envisions a drop to 1.23 percent in 2022. “One must say, quite simply, that Europe alone isn’t strong enough to be the global peacekeeper,” Merkel said in Muenster.
German voters, however, don’t care so much about that. The Pew Research Center and Germany’s Koerber Striftung recently compared Americans’ and Germans’ views of bilateral relations and found that while Americans say security and defense ties are the most important aspect of the relationship, to Germans economic ties and shared democratic values hold more significance.
In general, according to Pew Research and Koerber Stiftung, a majority of Germans — as opposed to only a small minority of Americans — appears to believe the U.S.-German relationship is “bad.” That share has increased since Trump’s election, but Germans were more negative about the U.S. than most Europeans even when Barack Obama — who was popular in Germany — was president.
Germany avoided being dragged into the Iraq war but couldn’t resist U.S. pressure to get involved in Afghanistan against most Germans’ will (now, a majority still wants the troops out of that country). Germans, who had done their best to shed their violent past, watched aghast as the U.S. used torture, extralegal detention and blanket surveillance — practices that were instituted under George W. Bush and partly survived in the Obama era.
Even before Trump settled in the White House, Germans began learning that the U.S. doesn’t handle economic and trade ties in the same ways as they do. The U.S. punitive attack on Volkswagen following its cheating on exhaust tests began under Obama, and it far exceeded anything the company had to face at home or anywhere in Europe; Trump’s complaints about the German auto industry merely continued the same line.
Now, another incomprehensible economic spectacle is unfolding parallel to Trump’s pressure on European steel and aluminum exporters. National Security Adviser John Bolton is threatening sanctions against European companies for dealing with Iran — and, at the same time, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is promising U.S. investment in North Korea if it denuclearizes. Wasn’t that what the Iran deal was about?
“So, American firms will soon be able to do business in North Korea, but not European ones in Iran,” commentator Mark Schieritz wrote on Twitter. Schieritz published a column in the weekly Die Zeit on Sunday arguing that the U.S. was no longer a partner but a rival for Europe. He argued that time had come for Europe to confront the U.S. and respond to its “blackmail” in a tit-for-tat format — something the more sober Spiegel editorial didn’t advocate.
The cautious German elite, led by Merkel with her preference for compromise in any situation, has been holding back the anti-American sentiment so far. But that position may become untenable as Germans realize their country isn’t getting much out of being a U.S. ally. A majority can’t imagine a situation in which U.S. soldiers would need to defend Germany against aggression, and as the values gap with the U.S. grows and the economic benefits of partnership shrink, anti-Americanism can become an increasingly attractive political card to play.
Germany has done the U.S. a favor by not seeking a leadership role in the decades since its reunification. There’s no guarantee, however, that post-Merkel it won’t take a more assertive stance, using the European Union as a vehicle for its ambition. Even if a post-Trump U.S. government walks back some of his unilateralism, the mistrust that’s been building up for years won’t go away overnight.
Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.