Never since the founding of postwar Germany have relations between Berlin and the United States been as fragile as they are today. There is virtual radio silence between Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump and U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell is doing more to agitate the situation than to mediate.
When it comes to fostering relations between Germany and the United States, the Atlantik-Brücke in Berlin is the most important player. For almost 70 years, the non-profit organization has worked, according to its statutes, to “deepen the collaboration between Germany, Europe and America on all levels.”
The American ambassador usually plays a key role in this process. When a new chief U.S. diplomat arrives in the German capital, the Atlantik-Brücke organizes a big dinner, an event that has become a regular tradition.
When U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell took up his posting in Germany last year, there were plans to welcome him according to that custom, but Grenell didn’t want to. He wasn’t interested.
The ambassador also turned down the invitation to speak at a meeting of the organization’s members in late June of last year. Nor did Grenell want to hold a talk at the ensuing barbecue, where he was described as the “guest of honor.” He instead gave two students an interview that mostly centered on his dog and its importance to the ambassador’s life. Then he disappeared again.
Since then, there has been radio silence between Donald Trump’s representative in Berlin and the most important German-American lobby group. The only thing that exceeds Grenell’s demonstrative disinterest in the Atlantik-Brücke, it seems, is his pretension to power. When it comes to who should lead the group, the U.S. ambassador still wants to have his say.
When Friedrich Merz of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party announced he was stepping down as the longtime chair of the group and suggested former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) as his successor, Grenell personally called the group to voice his misgivings. The organization, however, politely rejected his recommendations. Grenell didn’t answer a request for comment about his actions and communicated that he was not available for an interview with DER SPIEGEL.
The Antithesis to Trump’s America
The quarrel between Trump’s man in Germany and the most important organization in the trans-Atlantic relationship may seem like a bizarre facet of political life in Berlin, but it is also symptomatic of a German-American relationship that has reached a new low-point in recent months. “There is a crisis in the U.S. German relationship of a type that I would never have expected to occur in our time,” says Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO ambassador and current foreign policy adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Germany has become the antithesis to Trump’s America — that much is clear from Grenell’s tweets. The conflict centers on concrete interests and political issues, but of course also on the personal chemistry between Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In no other area are the stances of Berlin and Washington as far apart as they are on the issue of Iran. For the first time in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany, the German government has explicitly based a decision not to take part in a military deployment on the fact that the deployment is being led by the U.S.
Germany could face new punitive tariffs in November as part of the trade conflict, and Grenell has even indirectly threatened to pull its troops out of the country in the dispute with Berlin about increasing its military spending to 2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in line with the target for NATO members.
Elsewhere, Trump is openly calling for the European Union to split up. He is publicly encouraging the new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, to embark on a hard Brexit. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, traveled to London last week to communicate that the U.S. would “enthusiastically” support a decision by the UK to leave the EU with no deal.
Trump has shaken the relationship between the Germans and the Americans in ways that extend far beyond politics. The U.S. is more unpopular with Germans than ever before. A survey conducted for the Atlantik-Brücke found that 85 percent of Germans view the relationship with the U.S. as negative or very negative. Now, 42 percent see China as a more reliable partner. “It worries me that it has become popular even among the leading elites of the German business community to bid farewell to America,” says Sigmar Gabriel, the new head of Atlantik-Brücke. “Many now see the U.S. as a bigger problem than China and Russia.”
Little Communication Between Merkel and Trump
The communication between the chancellor and the U.S. president has been scaled back to a minimum. Whereas Merkel at times spoke with Trump predecessor Barack Obama once a week, contact with Trump has been extremely sparse. “Spontaneous phone calls are not a part of their relationship,” says one U.S. diplomat. They often go for several months without speaking to each other.
From a German perspective, conversations with the president are mostly just seen as futile. The have “little practical use,” says one government representative. What is Merkel supposed to talk to Trump about? Should she tell him she believes his Iran policy is wrong? The representative says he knows that. Should she try to get him to change course? The official says that’s pointless.
According to people who have been present during meetings between Trump and Merkel, when the two leaders do see each other, the exchange is direct and open. “There is no understanding, but there are also no misunderstandings,” says one U.S. diplomat. One could say the same of Merkel’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
According to participants, Merkel’s tone during the meetings is relaxed, often slightly ironic. She teases Trump at times, but never treats him disrespectfully. Trump, meanwhile, according to one government representative, affords her a “perverse respect,” in part because she doesn’t ingratiate herself to him. The official claims Trump sees Germany as a model of success, as an export nation that doesn’t get involved in military conflicts and allows others to foot the bill. “If Trump could do that himself, he would.”
Trump is being faced with a German chancellor who clearly wants to go down in history as his opponent. Although Merkel described it as “absurd” and “ludicrous” that she was described as the leader of the free world after Trump’s election, she does like the posture.
In May, she flew to Boston to deliver a commencement speech at Harvard University that can safely be described as an anti-Trump manifesto. She was also accidentally caught by photographers reading an anti-Trump book during her vacation: “Tyrant,” by Stephen Greenblatt, about Shakespeare’s despots – some of whom have an unmistakable similarity to the current U.S. president.
It has now become normal for Merkel not to ask for a meeting with Trump when she visits the U.S. There was no meeting with Trump during the Harvard trip, and when Merkel attends the United Nations General Assembly in New York in mid-September, no meeting with Trump is planned. “From the beginning, the chancellor made it clear that she would concentrate on UN issues,” says a German government source.
An Anti-German Undertone
For Trump, Germany is a “flyover country” when he visits Europe. The American president has been in Rome, Paris and London during his presidency, but he has not paid a single visit to Berlin.
When Trump embarks on his extended European trip in late August, he will visit Copenhagen and Warsaw after the G-7 in Biarritz, in southern France. Nobody in Berlin has any illusions about the symbolism of the trip: the right-wing populist Polish government has, like Trump, attacked Merkel’s refugee policy. To the delight of the president, the Polish government is also fulfilling its NATO pledges. In Denmark, a new prime minister has taken office following a campaign with anti-migration tones. The Danes will now decide whether the Nord Stream 2 pipeline Trump is so vehemently fighting against will be allowed to be built. “The trip has an anti-German undertone,” says a high-ranking German government representative.
In the good old days of the German-American friendship, the U.S. ambassador tried to keep the lines of conversation between the Chancellery and the White House open. “We actually need an American ambassador who mediates, who tells the Americans, even if he doesn’t share our position, why we think the way we do,” says Gabriel.
A Style That ‘Took Getting Used To’
But from the start, Grenell has shown that he is primarily interested in garnering headlines. He had hardly taken up his posting when he suggested in a tweet that German companies should limit their business with Iran, prompting Martin Schulz, who was the head of the Social Democrats at the time, to say that the ambassador was behaving like a “right-wing extremist colonial officer.” Grenell then gave an interview to the right-wing news portal Breitbart in which he made it sound like he was hoping for a Trump-style right-wing revolution in Europe.
Soon after, pretty much anyone with a reputation to lose began keeping their distance from Grenell. No U.S. ambassador in recent German history seems to have been so isolated. On the American side, people have noticed that Merkel’s people are constantly trying to organize panel discussions with American guests at which there is no space for Grenell at the table. Sometimes, however, the Americans insist — as happened during the Munich Security Conference in February, which U.S. Vice President Mike Pence attended. In conversation, Merkel made it clear in no uncertain terms how little regard she has for Grenell. She told Pence that the U.S. ambassador cultivates a style that “took getting used to.”
Grenell has been in his posting for about one and a half years, but the chancellor still hasn’t offered him a personal meeting. Merkel’s people say that is not typical for a head of government to meet with an ambassador. But even German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas hasn’t had a significant conversation with Grenell in almost one year. The last time they spoke in depth was at a party held by the tabloid newspaper Bild last September. Grenell didn’t want to comment on this either.
Maas and the ambassador appeared to make small talk at the Bild event, but even that went awry. That same evening, Grenell said that, of all people, Maas was a fan of Kid Rock, one of the few Trump supporters in the U.S. showbusiness world. Maas had never even heard of Kid Rock. He had mentioned Pearl Jam, a left-wing grunge band.
Trump and Grenell are astonishingly similar. Both are happy to dish it out, but they are highly sensitive when they are the subject of attacks. Like Trump, Grenell also has a penchant for right-wing conspiracy theorists. Grenell recently shared a tweet by right-wing columnist Katie Hopkins in which she claimed that “Merkel’s media” had explained that a recent killing by a migrant in Stuttgart using a sword had merely been the result of “differences in culture.” Like Trump, Grenell is also a virtuoso at self-promotion.
‘I’m Making them Pay Their Bills’
Four weeks ago, the ambassador gave an interview to Fox News. Grenell is often a guest on the channel, which is the most reliable way of getting the president’s attention. That day, Grenell spoke broadly about U.S. foreign policy. He spoke about how America is viewed in the world. “Barack Obama was wildly popular in Germany,” said Grenell. And yet, he said, during his presidency, the Germans didn’t raise their defense spending and they began planning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. “So, I’m not sure popularity is really what we should be going for,” he said.
Apparently, Trump was listening closely. Only one day after that interview, the president flew to North Carolina for the campaign appearance where he held the now infamous speech in which he attacked Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar until the crowd shouted, “Send her back!” The backlash against the president and his supporters was enormous.
But in the hubbub, people missed the fact that the speech also included an attack against Angela Merkel. “There was a recent poll — Germany likes Obama better than Trump,” he said. “I said, of course, because I’m making them pay their bills. Obama would go and make a speech, leave. I go and make a speech and say: Let me speak to Ankela. Ankela, you gotta pay your bills, you’re way behind!” The crowd was amused — particularly about the president’s deliberately botched pronunciation of the German chancellor’s name.
In the meantime, some in the Berlin government are starting to wonder whether it might be more prudent to tread more lightly with Trump and his ambassador. They argue that simply declaring Grenell a pariah will only further radicalize him.
Most recently, Grenell last week issued the vaguely veiled threat of pulling American troops out of Germany. “It is actually offensive to assume that the U.S. taxpayer must continue to pay to have 50,000-plus Americans in Germany, but the Germans get to spend their surplus on domestic programs,” he told the German news agency DPA. Just shortly before, the U.S. ambassador in Warsaw, Georgette Mosbacher, suggested that Washington should transfer more of its troops stationed in Europe to Poland. She noted how, in contrast to Germany, Poland is actually fulfilling the constantly repeated demand from Trump that NATO member states spend 2 percent of GDP on defense spending. Trump personally retweeted Mosbacher’s message to his 63 million followers.
The latest tirade provides a good example of the fact that, like Trump, Grenell is mainly about the show. Because Grenell should know from his visits to the U.S. bases in Germany that they benefit Americans at least as much as they do the Germans. Indeed, the Pentagon even wants to upgrade the bases.
Today, huge U.S. bases like the ones in Ramstein or Stuttgart no longer primarily serve as protection against the enemy in the East — they operate as hubs for operations in the Middle East. Soldiers injured in areas where the U.S. military is deployed are flown to the giant military hospital at Landstuhl for treatment. The Miesau Army Depot is home to one of the U.S. Army’s largest munitions depots worldwide. The Vilseck and Grafenwöhr sites are also essential for training operations for the U.S. Army together with its NATO partners.
In addition, the U.S. Army commands a large share of its worldwide missions from Germany. In the Stuttgart area, for example, the military controls all troop movements in Europe and each of the numerous operations in Africa. It’s unlikely that any American commander would voluntarily give up the well-developed bases in a stable country like Germany, which has given the Americans many properties more or less for free.
In any case, Trump wouldn’t have the political support for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany. “You would not get anywhere close to a majority of members of Congress who would want to strike a blow against our alliance with Germany,” says Biden adviser Burns. He argues that Germany is one of the most important allies the U.S. has anywhere in the world. For Burns, a withdrawal of U.S. troops is out of the question. “It would be a betrayal of our alliance with Germany,” he says.
A Symbol for the Breakdown in Ties
If there is a symbol for the breakdown in German-American relations, then it’s two steel pipes, each 1,230 kilometers (764 miles) long. Once laid, they will run along the bottom of the Baltic Sea from Vyborg in Russia to Lubmin in the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. As early as next year, gas flowing from northern Russia through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline could be used to heat millions of German households.
But Trump is doing what he can to prevent the project’s completion. Washington is exerting pressure on the Danish government in particular because its approval is required for construction of one section of the pipeline, meaning Copenhagen has a certain amount of power over the entire project.
Trump was planning a trip to Copenhagen in September, though he has since canceled. But even if Denmark is able to withstand American pressure, Washington will continue to fight the project. The Americans are even threatening to levy sanctions against the members of the consortium. “Stiff sanctions can be imposed at any time,” says Joachim Pfeiffer, the conservative CDU party’s economics affairs expert in parliament. “They hang like a sword of Damocles over relations between Germany and the U.S.”
Trump has publicly stated that the Germans should not build Nord Stream 2 because it would increase German dependence on Russia. “We’re supposed to be guarding against Russia and Germany goes out and pays billions and billions of dollars a year to Russia,” Trump said last year. But in their talks with the German government in Berlin, representatives of the U.S. government have bluntly admitted it is also about their own economic interests: They want the Germans to purchase liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Texas rather than natural gas from Siberia.
On his last trip to the U.S. in July, German Economics Minister Peter Altmaier, likewise from the CDU, attempted to assuage the Americans he was visiting. He said a port would be built for LNG tankers in the town of Brunsbüttel near Hamburg. He also said that even if Nord Stream 2 is connected to the German gas network, there will still be an excellent market for American gas. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer listened patiently to what Altmaier had to say, but that’s about all. The minister was perplexed as he flew home. “President Trump sees the European Union almost solely as an economic competitor,” Burns says. “That is a grave mistake. Every president since Harry Truman has supported the European project because it is always in our interest that the EU succeeds.”
Making Life Difficult for German Carmakers
The situation is no better for executives in the German automobile industry. For more than a year now, Trump has been making life difficult for the bosses of Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen. Trump even prompted them to convene a joint meeting at the White House in the hope of preventing punitive tariffs against German cars.
Last summer, outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Trump agreed that they would negotiate a deal over tariffs on industrial goods that would also clarify the issue of levies on cars. Trump assured him that no import tax would be levied until that agreement was reached, but that pledge expires in November. The European Commission is still negotiating the modalities of talks on eliminating tariffs with the U.S. administration but has so far enjoyed little success. Given its popularity as a campaign issue, there is little hope within the German government that Trump will abandon his threat of imposing punitive tariffs on Germany’s automobile industry. “In order to protect itself from Trump’s whims, Germany must take a leading role in the fight for free trade in Europe so that Brussels can forge a coalition of multilateralists,” says CDU economics expert Pfeiffer.
In Berlin, many are still holding out hope that the good old days of trans-Atlantic cooperation can resume once the Trump era has passed. But that could prove illusory. “The U.S. won’t remain the way it is under Trump, but it will also never be the same as it was before him again,” says Gabriel.
The fact is that the Democrats agree with many of the points where Trump is critical, and Washington would remain an uncomfortable partner even if a Democrat is elected into the White House next year. Trump, in all his brutal openness, has made it clear that the U.S. is no longer willing to pay for Europe. The Democrats are also raising the question of military spending. And even Biden adviser Burns thinks the Germans should have taken part in the military action in the Strait of Hormuz.
A Convenient Excuse for Germany
Indeed, Trump has become a convenient excuse for the Germans. Whatever he says is rejected almost reflexively. This is true for both the military mission in the Strait of Hormuz and NATO’s 2-percent target. The Germans need to finally get over the idea that they can remain a kind of giant Switzerland in the middle of Europe forever, says Peter Rough from the conservative Hudson Institute think tank.
Robert Kagan, a former adviser to two Republican presidential candidates who now works at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, generated considerable buzz with an essay he published in May in Foreign Affairs magazine. In it, he wrote that the German question, which led to two world wars and millions of deaths, could return. America’s role in Europe has historically been a guarantor against Germany’s hegemonic tendencies, Kagan argued.
America, according to Kagan, made a stable Europe possible after 1945 by providing economic and military security, promoting democracy and suppressing nationalist tendencies. “Trump is actually fanning the flames of nationalism … again and again by supporting basically nationalist parties in Europe,” Kagan told DER SPIEGEL. “He’s clearly destroying the global free trade regime by pursuing protectionist American policies which are directly harming Germany, which depends on a free trade regime to be economically successful.”
So, what can be done? “I wish I had an answer to that,” Kagan says, noting that Europe’s success following World War II has been closely linked to support from the U.S. “I don’t know how Europe can do it in the absence of the United States’ role.”