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U.S.-German ties are bad under Trump — if Biden wins he may struggle to repair them

"This is the most important U.S. election in the history of Germany," one former ambassador said.
Illustration of German flag-pattern flowers falling dead in a vase with U.S. flag pattern.
The U.S.-German relationship is at its lowest ebb since World War II.Sebastian Konig / for NBC News

During the Trump administration, few places have recoiled with as much horror as Germany, once a vital friend that the White House now berates with open hostility.

But anyone hoping the U.S. presidential election in November would quickly reverse years of turmoil with Germany may be sorely disappointed, according to former U.S. diplomats, and officials and analysts in Berlin.

Trump has steered the transatlantic alliance into its worst crisis since World War II, these experts agree. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, may be unable or unwilling to turn back the clock to the more cordial days of 2016, when he was vice president.

"If Biden wins, everybody's going to cheer and say everything's wonderful," said John C. Kornblum, U.S. ambassador to Germany under President Bill Clinton. "But compared with 2016, he will be dealing with an entirely different world of issues and problems — and they aren't going to be solved just by him being nice."

Nevertheless, the U.S. election presents two drastically different visions of German's future.

Trump is about as unpopular there as anywhere on the planet. Many fear that if he is re-elected, he would not only trash what's left of Berlin's ties with Washington but deal a death blow to the concept of the West itself.

"This is the most important U.S. election in the history of Germany," said John M. Koenig, who led the Berlin embassy as chargé d'affaires for a year under President Barack Obama. "This means almost as much to the future of Germany as it does to the U.S."

Worst since WWII

This alliance is no stranger to crises.

In 1987, Kornblum, then a senior U.S. official in Berlin, felt he had to take drastic action to repair a growing rift with what was then West Germany.

The West Germans were angry that American intermediate-range nuclear missiles were deployed on their soil. The Americans worried their allies would lose faith and try to make a deal with the Soviet Union.

Kornblum's solution started with a scrawled idea on a cocktail napkin at a reception, and ended with one of the most significant speeches in modern history.

On June 12 that year, President Ronald Reagan demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" in front of the Brandenburg Gate, an address Kornblum says he choreographed to reassure the Germans that the Americans still had their backs.

"We started planning it a year before as an important, high-level romantic symbol — and it worked," Kornblum said.

Two years later, the Berlin Wall fell. Reagan’s speech is now seen as a historic turning point in a relationship that's become emblematic of postwar liberal multilateralism.

U.S. soldiers and East German border guards at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie in 1961.Czechatz / ullstein bild via Getty Images file

The first Germans arrived in Pennsylvania in the early 1600s, and today some 45 million Americans have German heritage, the most common ancestral country of the last census.

Americans helped defeat the Nazis, spent billions funding Germany's reconstruction, midwifed its constitution and stationed hundreds of thousands of soldiers there during the Cold War.

As a critic of Trump's, Kornblum believes that if Biden wins he would need his own "Brandenburg Gate moment" to have any hope of repairing the bond with Germany. But, like other observers, Kornblum is skeptical it will ever be the same.

Many in Europe have watched with anger and sadness at Trump's freewheeling, convention-busting presidency. He has favored his own brand of transactional nationalism, berating allies for freeloading on Washington's goodwill, and singling out Germany for being "delinquent" on military spending and for running a trade surplus.

Trump appears to have developed a particular animus for its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel. Trump once blamed Merkel for "ruining Germany," has accused her of being a "captive" of the Kremlin because of a new gas pipeline to Russia, and tweeted in 2018 that "the people of Germany are turning against" her over her immigration policies.

Things came to a head last week when the Trump administration announced it would withdraw almost 12,000 of its 35,000 troops stationed in Germany, a sweeping reorganization that will redraw the map of U.S. military presence in Europe.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper was eager to paint the move, redeploying headquarters, fighter squadrons and battalions elsewhere in Europe, as one motivated by military strategy. That rationale was quickly undermined by Trump, who told reporters at the White House, "We don't want to be the suckers any more. We're reducing the force because they're not paying their bills. It's very simple."

Trump did not mention that Italy and Belgium — where some of these troops will be moved — spend even less on defense than Germany as a proportion of their respective GDPs.

The move has also alarmed retired generals and congressional Republicans and Democrats. They argue that the troops are not there to protect Germany, but to provide an American launching pad to the Middle East, if needed, and a psychological bulwark against Russia.

"From the beginning of the new administration, it was clear the U.S. style had changed. It wasn't about negotiation. It was more: OK, this is what we expect you to do," David Deißner, chief executive of Atlantik-Brücke, a Berlin nonprofit focused on U.S.-German relations, said.

"That kind of style of blackmailing isn't hugely appreciated here," he said, referring to the repeated, brusque demands issued by the Trump administration.

A pivotal election, a continent away

It's little surprise some Germans are already looking to Nov. 3 as a possible chance for renewal.

"How interested are the Germans in the U.S. election? They are obsessed with it," said John B. Emerson, U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2013 to 2017.

Advocates of the transatlantic relationship worry about how much more damage Trump could do during a second term.

"I mean, Trump could formally withdraw from NATO," Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, said. "It is not over-dramatizing things to say that if Trump gets re-elected, the concept of the West has ceased to exist."

Merkel speaks to Trump during the G7 summit in Quebec, Canada, in June 2018.Jesco Denzel / Reuters file

But if Biden wins, he will surely be more polite and bring "a more cooperative, more multilateral style of policymaking," Deißner said.

Biden would immediately review the decision to withdraw troops from Germany. But once in office he would also be greeted by European leaders who are far more wary than they were during his days as Obama's point person on foreign policy.

Merkel and others have made it clear that they are no longer willing to rely on Washington — especially after seeing how easily a disruptor president can get elected.

Whatever "the outcome of the election, the U.S. will no longer be available as a security partner in the same capacity as they were in the past," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said at a briefing last month following a question from NBC News.

On June 27, Maas openly rejected Trump's suggestion of allowing Russia back into the Group of Seven, an international club better known as the G7. Russia was suspended in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea, and Trump has dismayed allies abroad and congressional Republicans by inviting President Vladimir Putin back into the fold.

The president's outsider status in Europe was summed up by French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in 2018, who said the G7 had become more like the "G-6+1" — with Washington playing the role of odd one out.

Even if Biden does try to revive the more amiable days of his old boss, in truth Obama was no less relentless in pressuring Germany to spend more on defense, just less rude.

Merkel and Obama walk among other G7 leaders during its summit in Germany in 2015.Sean Gallup / Getty Images file

Furthermore, Obama's "Pivot to Asia" was widely seen as a step away from old European alliances to refocus on China, which has already become a central battleground between Trump and Biden.

Biden's campaign website suggests he will keep up the pressure on NATO, vowing to keep its "military capabilities sharp" and making sure allies "recommit to their responsibilities as members of a democratic alliance."

Many critics of Trump say there is at least a kernel of truth in his complaints on this issue. Germany is the world's fourth-largest economy, yet it spends 1.4 percent of its GDP on defense, far less than the 2 percent agreed by NATO.

"Relying on American security policy and then complaining about everything they're doing wrong is not acceptable behavior," Wolfgang Schäuble, president of the German Parliament, told the German magazine Der Spiegel last month. "We have lived rather cheaply for quite some time, were strong economically and allowed others to take care of our security."

Supporters credit Trump with pressuring the Europeans to increase this spending (in truth the uptick started after Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014) as well as boosting funding for the Obama-initiated European Deterrence Initiative, which aims to deter Moscow.

"NATO today remains more capable of defending its members from Russian aggression than it was in the 15 years before Trump," a Council on Foreign Relations report said last year.

It also cautioned that his "assault on the psychology of NATO" risks fracturing the entire alliance, and if that happens "these defense enhancements will mean nothing."

Kornblum, who has served Republican and Democratic presidents, describes Trump as "a very strange and disturbing personality" who has "reduced our influence in the world."

"But sometimes I say: Well, the Europeans needed a real shaking up, and now they're getting one," he said.

'Dragged in and yelled at'

In any case, it's not like the pre-Trump era was "a constant 'Kumbayah' round the campfire," Emerson, the ambassador under Obama, said.

There were crises in 2003, when Germany refused to follow the U.S. into the Iraq War, and in the anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s.

In 2013, Emerson became the first U.S. ambassador since World War II to be convoked — "the diplomatic term for being dragged in and yelled at by your host government," as he puts it — after allegations that the U.S. had tapped Merkel's cellphone.

"I would not be able to move in my house if I had kept every article written over the past decade about how the transatlantic relationship is disintegrating, about how 'the European project is over,' or 'whither NATO,'" Emerson said.

But today's rift goes deeper than defense or trade.

Younger Germans appear to see Trump's America as an increasingly alien place, one riven by racial injustice and economic inequality, going backward on climate change and derided for its poor record in tackling the coronavirus.

Some of the largest protests against George Floyd's killing in Europe were in Germany.

Koenig, the former embassy chief, remembers the rock-star reception 100,000 Berliners gave to Obama before his 2008 election.

"Something like that would never happen again," Koening, later U.S. ambassador to Cyprus under Obama, said. "There was a reservoir of positive sentiment that I think has just gone."

Many in Berlin see this shift as part of a wider American decline, with Trump stepping back from several multilateralist projects, and China seemingly eager to fill the void.

"When you look at American history over the past 250 years, one can say at the end of a decade the United States stood stronger than at the beginning of the decade," said Jürgen Hardt, a German lawmaker and Merkel's former transatlantic coordinator. "This might not be true for the current epoch of American politics."

He added, "I find it a pity that the American president apparently picked Germany as the nation he holds responsible for the things that are not working out well in his own country."

Alexander Smith reported from London, and Carlo Angerer reported from Munich, Germany.