Who among us in Europe would ever have thought that the transatlantic relationship could reach such a low point. Who would have believed that Germany, the United States’ closest ally, would become the whipping boy of the US government. An election victory for President Trump in November would further strengthen this trend.
For Germany, America has been a firm anchor in the transatlantic value system from a security, economic, political and socio-political point of view. Obama’s announcement of a stronger turn towards Asia (Pivot to Asia) did not change that. Obama never questioned the importance of the transatlantic security architecture or the role of Germany – especially the German Chancellor. Even during the Iraq war and the tense relationship between Chancellor Schröder and George W. Bush, disagreements were overcome against a background of clear mutual interest. Germany remained a “partner in leadership”, a role that had previously been claimed by the UK, especially by Tony Blair. Since taking office in 2017, President Trump has disassociated the USA from almost all international treaty obligations and he has never made a secret of his contempt for international organisations, cancelling American participation in them.
The Trump government’s record is particularly worrying because of the termination of almost all disarmament and arms control agreements. The INF Treaty on the Prohibition of Land-Based Medium-Range Nuclear Weapons, one of the most important disarmament treaties between the USA and Russia, expired in 2019. This means that the two countries can once again build weapons of this sort without restrictions. Central Europe is particularly at risk here. Germany, in particular, made efforts to keep this agreement alive.
In the meantime, the USA has unilaterally withdrawn from the so-called Open Sky Agreement, which allowed the signatory states to conduct mutual reconnaissance flights in each other’s airspace and was an important part of building confidence on both sides. As always, each side has accused the other of breaching the agreement.
The Agreement on Strategic Nuclear Weapons (START) is about to expire. Putin has proposed a five-year extension without any preconditions. That time could then be used to renegotiate a new START agreement. Trump has demanded as a precondition the participation of China, but China is not prepared to do so, pointing out that the USA and Russia possess 92% of all nuclear weapons. In the meantime, an agreement has been reached on talks between the foreign ministers in Vienna on 20 June. The reason for this willingness on both sides, especially the Russian side, is likely to be the huge cost of renewing the 1,550 nuclear warheads and their delivery systems. But Trump can still play the Chinese card and put a stop to it all.
Since the beginning of his term in office, the President has unilaterally terminated trade agreements (NAFTA) or refused to sign new ones, despite the successful conclusion of many years of negotiations (TTP). His decision to leave the World Trade Organisation is creating major problems for the global economy. Over decades, the WTO had created a set of rules that have regulated business and trade, its instruments of dispute resolution have worked well and it has given the globalised economy more predictability.
The unilateral termination of the International Environmental Agreement by the United States poses what may be an even greater challenge to our planet. The United States does not rely on energy imports because of so-called fracking. This means that there is no incentive whatsoever to get involved in an international system in view of the global threat to the environment. Now we can only hope that governors and legislatures in US states recognise the dangers of climate change and resist the President’s climate policy. While, in the White House Rose Garden, Trump was boasting about his withdrawal from the agreement and his successful climate policy, the coal industry in the USA was just one of the sectors that was already calculating the profits that can be made on the back of the new American climate policy. Even countries like China have increased their environmental awareness and recognized the dangers for their own economy.
The agreement with Iran which, in the opinion of most states, had restricted the Iranian nuclear program, has collapsed because of the USA. The global nuclear threat has thus increased. No Third World state would now be prepared to rely on Western partners or to enter into commitments similar to those undertaken by Iran in the past. North Korea has also recognised this.
That is why the interest in the Korean dictator has abated in the USA. The American government is not living up to its previous international responsibility. This began with its resignation from UNESCO. Finance for the United Nations (UN) and its sub-organisations has been cut or shut off, the staff of the US State Department has been reduced and development aid has been cut worldwide. When it comes to international crisis management, the US is only prepared to get involved if its interests are directly affected. They hardly have any role in the Near or Middle East now. Already under Obama, the USA had reduced its presence in Syria and Russia and in effect has even pulled out of Iran. China is expanding its influence in the entire region and is regarded by Trump as the real threat.
America’s policy in the Near East, which is based solely on the interests of Israel, has minimised its role in the region. The recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital – without any prior consultation with allies – has been unanimously rejected in the Arab world and is not supported by most EU states. American encouragement of Israel to annex occupied Palestinian territories further increases tensions. The EU is not prepared to follow suit on this issue either. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has no experience whatsoever in the region, had negotiated this solution unilaterally with Israel, without involving the Arab states, let alone the Europeans. This will not be a sustainable solution.
In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump declared his withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and stopped all payments. He is deliberately weakening the WHO, which is urgently needed despite its weaknesses. The reason is, as always, to distract from his own failings, which have led to the high numbers of infections and fatalities in the USA. For a long time the USA was at the top of the list of fatalities and infections. Now only Brazil is ahead of it.
In consultation with its European partners, the German government is trying to prevent a race for the commercial exploitation of a future coronavirus vaccine in the interests of poor countries. Trump has already made it clear, however, that for him the principle of “America First” should apply.
In the meantime, an increasing number of Americans seem to be seeing the situation in their country more clearly. Resistance to the President is increasing due to the desperate economic situation caused by the pandemic. The police violence that caused the death of George Floyd, in particular, has carried the protest onto the streets.
Germany is the current favourite opponent of the Trump government. Do negative memories of ancestors from Germany play a part here? Is Germany too unwilling to give in to differences of opinion, or is it due to the personal chemistry between Trump and Merkel?
Probably a bit of all these things. There are many disputes – Germany has a problem with not meeting the two percent target in the defence budget. The accusation of not spending enough on our defence will be with us for a long time to come. Brexit, pandemic, NATO. The overall budgetary burden will increase for us, too. Added to this are the additional burdens resulting from the withdrawal of the USA from its own responsibilities. Germany is expected to carry more of the burden, e.g. in the areas of development aid, security policy, environment and energy.
The participation of the Chinese mobile phone company Huawei in the development of the 5G network remains a bone of contention between us and the United States. Interestingly, the UK also accepts the necessity of Chinese involvement – but in contrast to us, without the sharp public criticism from the USA.* Even it may not be able to avoid cooperation because of China’s significant lead in this technology.
The constant threats of customs duties on German cars also does nothing to improve the mood. On the other hand, however, this also applies to the planning of an EU-China summit during the German presidency of the Council, while the US President is currently trying to secure the participation of other countries such as Australia, Japan and India in his G-8 summit – a deliberate exclusion of China.
When it comes to Nord Stream 2, we have not only the USA (especially Congress) against us, but also some of our European neighbours. However, this topic could become less important as time passes and the project is completed.
The main supporter of the president on these and other issues was the former US Ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, who has just returned to the presidential campaign staff. If he were to be given an office in a future Trump administration, it would be a cause for concern because of his animosity towards Germany.
The personal relationship between Mrs Merkel and Trump also certainly plays a part. The cool objectivity of Merkel’s reaction to Trump gets a man like him into a rage. He would prefer an unfriendly exchange of tweets. But he runs into an empty silence with his tweets – a difficult situation for a politician of his character.
The USA, which has been a reliable ally and shaper of the global order since the Second World War, has abandoned this role. It is currently difficult to find common ground with the US under Trump – not to mention common values. Even the convergence of interests has decreased.
The interests of allies are hardly taken into account at all. Washington is reporting that Trump is planning to reduce the number of American troops stationed in Germany by 9,500, in other words by one third. This not only affects the strategic interests of all NATO partners. At the same time it is an affront to the Merkel government that it has so far received neither official confirmation nor denial. Trump, who has never felt much sympathy for the EU, repeatedly tries to divide it. Poland has now made clear its interest in becoming a host country for these US troops in the future. The situation is made even more difficult by the fact that Russia will presumably invoke the fact that no NATO troops may be transferred to the east. But the transfer to Poland also makes no sense from a military, economic or financial point of view. Germany’s logistical importance for the Near East, a region of tension, is undisputed. The USA has already invested billions of dollars in its largest base. 22 Republican members of the House of Representatives have therefore warned against this step in a public letter – an opinion that is obviously shared by the military.
Through “America First”, the country has made itself increasingly isolated and has lost a great deal of international trust. One can only imagine the pleasure the Russians and Chinese take in watching the decline of a great power. In the coronavirus pandemic, the USA is no better off than those countries. The accusation of racism remains. The number of unemployed is approaching 40 million and the economy is on the decline. However, the military power of the USA will continue and thus has a considerable potential for disruption. There is no reason for arrogance on either side.
The answer for Europe to the question of what to do has not changed. The solution for us lies solely in the European Union. The agreement on the aid package to deal with the economic consequences of the pandemic shows what is possible – especially if France and Germany are in agreement. The EU presidency of Germany and its assumption of the chair of the UN Security Council from 1 July opens up new opportunities for shaping the future. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election. We will not return quickly to the happy times of the past, even under a President Biden. The United States has hardly ever been as divided as it is today. A narrow election victory for Biden could cause Trump to carry out his 2017 threat not to accept the result. He already has his supporters, including the majority of the Supreme Court.
But let us trust in the common sense of our friends in the USA.
Editor’s note: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suspended plans to involve Huawei until 2023, under pressure from his own faction.
Jürgen Chrobog is former German Ambassador to the USA and former State Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He is President of the European Senate Policy of “Wir Eigentümerunternehmer” (We Proprietor Entrepreneurs).