Originally published in IPSK Policy Brief No. 9, November 2020.
Published by Prof. Dr. Joachim Krause & Stefan Hansen, Institut für Sicherheitspolitik an der Universität Kiel (IPSK).
Dr. Sebastian Bruns is the Head of the Center for Maritime Strategy & Security on the IPSK(firstname.lastname@example.org).
Dr. Marcel Dirsus is a Non-Resident Fellow on the IPSK and Partner at the political risk and research firm Occam Strategies (email@example.com, Twitter: @marceldirsus).
It is over. Donald Trump has lost. After four years of chaos, the self-declared saviour of America failed to convince the voters in key states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to grant him another term. Their choice will have a significant impact on German-American relations. President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on nothing less than restoring the soul of the American nation.The new administration faces a raging pandemic and a troubled economy, much like the rest of the world. Nevertheless, Biden’s foreign policy will be substantially different from Trump’s. After years of troubled relations with one of America’s most important allies, Biden will have to try to re-engage with Germany. Berlin ought to be prepared.
A New Beginning
Germany obviously has to deal with anyone who occupies the White House but seen from Berlin, the Biden victory is a welcome chance for a new beginning in US-German relations. Over in Germany, President Trump was perceived as unreliable and often outright hostile. He was also extraordinarily unpopular among ordinary Germans. While 86% of Germans had confidence in then-President Barack Obama, just 10% thought Trump would do the right thing.1 That lack of personal popularity also made Germans turn against the US as a whole. Between 2016 and 2020, the share of Germans who have a favourable view of America more than halved from 57% to 26%. Trump’s approval numbers are even lower than those of George W. Bush in the years of the German-American rift over the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.2 Germans are unlikely to be as enthusiastic about the new President-elect as they were about Obama (due to his old age and the relative disenfranchisement that liberal Germans experienced when they learned that the Obama presidency could not fulfil the idealist objectives of their time properly). However,there is every reason to believe that Biden is going to be much more popular than Trump. A poll recently found that 80% of Germans believe that German-American relations will improve under President Biden. Just 1% think the opposite.3 This matters a great deal for transatlantic relations. It was difficult for German politicians to be seen as “pro-American” under Trump because there was always the fear that they would be seen as “pro-Trump.” Given voters’ intense dislike for him, that was something to be avoided at all costs. This risk is going to diminish somewhat under President Biden. Still, the damage his predecessor has done to the public perception of the US as a beacon of hope and democracy, a “city upon a hill” as it were in international relations, is a strong burden. Moreover, in the past four years, those who –by upbringing or politicization –were critical of America, anti-Americanists even, have had the upper hand in the public discourse. Temperament and worldview aside, the new administration is going to be much more aligned with Berlin on a number of important policy issues. Biden takes climate change seriously. Unlike Trump, Biden is a strong supporter of NATO as an idea and as a policy enabler. Earlier this year, he called NATO “the most effective political-military alliance in modern history.”4 This is a drastic change from the man who said NATO was obsolete. While Trump has repeatedly praised Russia’s strong-man Vladimir Putin, President-elect Biden has referred to Russia as the greatest threat facing America.5 Importantly, he sees the European Union as a project worthy of support, not an enemy who is out to get America.
Biden will undoubtedly seek to improve German-American relations. Unsurprisingly and most fundamentally, America will continue to look to the Indo-Pacific rather than Europe because it is forced to deal with an overtly aggressive China. Consequently,Germans will inevitably have to do more for their own security. Sad as it may be, this sentence has been used so often that any constructive ideas pale in comparison, and simply funnelling more money into defence budgets hardly does the trick at all. As China becomes more of a direct challenge, Americans will also expect German help. German policymakers have already modified their view of the Chinese Communist Party but the Biden administration will undoubtedly push Berlin to do more when it comes to issues like 5G or East Asian security. Germany, traditionally loathe to let politics get in the way of business, will be very reluctant to take sides in a conflict among two of its largest trade partners. In addition, Berlin has its hands full trying to navigate European political quagmires and those stemming from the European periphery. The South China Sea, in more than one way, is a long way from the German plains. China aside, there are plenty of policy areas in which the US and Germany will continue to disagree long after Trump leaves office. Biden opposes Nord Stream 2, the gas pipeline linking Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea,just like almost every other American policy maker of note. The German government has threatened to change its stance on Russia and the nexus of politics and economic interests after Alexey Navalny was poisoned with a nerve agent, but it is unlikely to follow through. Frustration over Germany’s low de-fence spending and reluctance to take on meaningful additional responsibilities is bipartisan and far from limited to Trump’s inner circle,or Republicans in general. The Biden White House will articulate those frustrations differently,but the fundamental disagreements will continue to exist. The past years of Trumpian foreign policy have masked the extent to which Germany itself is a factor of uncertainty in transatlantic relations. A large part of the immediate future of bilateral relations will depend on German domestic politics. Lack of popular support for military interventions, for example, mean that the German government is heavily constrained when it comes to taking on more responsibility in Europe’s neighbourhood. Anti-Americanism is another constant issue and one that has grown worse throughout Trump’s term. Some analysts have also warned of the risk of Germany becoming too comfortable again once the US reverts to being a reliable partner. Others have made the opposite argument: That it is going to be easier for German politicians to do more once Trump is out of office because they do not risk being seen as following Trump’s “orders.” It is difficult to tell what will happen next,but there is little doubt that Trump’s behaviour encouraged the German government to take its own security more seriously.The national security consensus in the aftermath of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, however, will have to be renegotiated. Germany is set to hold six important regional elections and, most importantly, federal elections in 2021. Chancellor Angela Merkel, long an anchor of stability in transatlantic relations, will step down from power after 15 years. Foreign policy rarely plays a dominant role in German elections but it is certainly conceivable that some of the more controversial topics in German-American relations will be used by politicians for electoral gain. We might see German politicians rally against “American orders for higher defence spending”, for example. It is unclear which government will replace the current Grand Coalition between centre-left SPD and centre-right CDU/CSU. At this point, we do not even know who the next leader of the Christian Democrats will be. The most likely scenario is a coalition between CDU/CSU and the Greens. That coalition would almost certainly create significant challenges for German-American relations when it comes to areas like defence spending, use of force or nuclear sharing.
Making the Most of It
1. Accept the Structural Shift
2. Avoid Complacency
3. Get Quick Wins
4. Offer Cooperation on China
5. Level with Citizens
1 Wike, R./Fetterolf, J./Mordecai, M. (2020) “U.S. Image Plummets Internationally as Most Say Coun-try Has Handled Coronavirus Badly,” Pew, 15 Sep-tember, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/09/15/us-image-plummets-internationally-as-most-say-country-has-handled-coronavirus-badly/.
3 Ehni, E. (2020) “Klare Mehrheit zu Impfung bereit,“ Tagesschau, 12 November, https://www.tagesschau.de/inland/deutschlandtrend-2403.html.
4 Biden, J.R.(2020) “Why America Must Lead Again,” Foreign Affairs, March/April, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again.
5 Reuters (2020) “Kremlin accuses Joe Biden of spreading hatred of Russia with threat talk,” Reu-ters, 26 October, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-kremlin-idUSKBN27B13B