John McCain was in a wistful mood.
It was the spring of 2017 and I was visiting him for what would turn out to be the final time in his Senate office on Capitol Hill.
After catching me up on the latest in our home state of Arizona, McCain turned to another of his passions: Europe. The senator had just returned from a swing through the Balkans (spending time in one of Tito’s hunting lodges, among other places) and he was worried that neither Washington nor the Europeans were paying enough attention to the security situation there and the broader region, especially regarding the threat posed by Russia. What about the Germans, I asked, knowing how frustrated McCain had been with Berlin’s stance on Russia over the years. (In 2015, McCain, enraged over Berlin’s refusal to help arm Ukraine, said Angela Merkel’s course reminded him of “the policies of the 1930s,” a reference to the U.K.’s ill-fated appeasement strategy towards Hitler).
McCain, who never abandoned the vernacular of his fighter-pilot days, cracked a mischievous smile.
“The fucking Germans,” he laughed. “What is there to say?”
Were he still alive, McCain would no doubt have plenty to say about the foreign policy trajectory of Merkel’s government in recent years.
Since McCain’s death in 2018, Germany has refused to back the U.S. on just about every major foreign policy front, whether concerning China, Russia, Iran, Israel or the broader Middle East.
Meanwhile, Berlin continues to fall short of NATO defense spending targets and the defense ministry’s procurement practices — in recent days it had to scrap plans to order a new standard-issue assault rifle over a patent dispute — remain a comedy of errors.
McCain, no fan of Trump’s, would no doubt join that chorus. But he would also likely point out that the underlying divisions predate Trump and cut to a more fundamental question: Whose side is Germany on anyway?
No one on either side of the Atlantic is even trying to paper over the deep differences in the relationship anymore. I recently asked Christian Lindner, the leader of Germany’s Free Democrats, an ostensibly pro-American party, what his expectations for the German-American partnership were. His reply: “What transatlantic relationship are you referring to still?”
With German-American relations at their lowest ebb since World War II, McCain’s frustration with German policy offers a reminder that the American transatlantic establishment’s exasperation with Germany runs deep and is bipartisan. Trump’s outrageous taunts have prompted many Germans to forget that Barack Obama also pressured Berlin to spend more on defense. Indeed, the first president to criticize the Europeans as “free riders” was Obama.
That history suggests that hopes among many in Berlin that U.S.-German ties will somehow revert to the earlier norm if Joe Biden (a close friend of McCain’s over decades) wins the presidency aren’t just overblown: They’re a fantasy.
No going back
One big reason there is no going back is Washington’s focus on China, one of the few areas of bipartisan consensus across the American political divide.
“As U.S. foreign policy becomes increasingly focused on strategic competition with China and subordinates relationships with long-standing allies to that overriding priority, Europe will be faced with difficult choices — whoever is president,” Chatham House’s Hans Kundnani recently observed.
Yet there’s a more prosaic explanation for why there’s no turning back the transatlantic clock: Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, it has become increasingly difficult to explain to Americans why the country even needs to be in Europe.
This is particularly true of the American military presence in Germany, where the U.S. has anchored its European engagement for decades. Trump’s attacks on Berlin’s modest military spending may trigger outrage in Germany, but in the U.S., they are viewed as among his less controversial outbursts.
That might be because, like Obama before him, he has a point. Why should the U.S. continue to bear the financial brunt of protecting Europe’s richest country? That question becomes even tougher to answer when considering Germany’s continued engagement with Russia — such as via the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — despite the loud objections of the U.S. and other allies.
Last month, Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the U.S. who is now chairman of the Munich Security Conference, the annual powwow of the transatlantic alliance, cautioned against canceling Nord Stream 2 in the wake of Russia’s suspected poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny with a nerve agent.
Halting the project would “unleash a triumphant yowl in the Trump administration,” Ischinger told a prime-time audience on German television last month.
In other words, it was more important to keep Germany’s word to Russia than to hand Trump the appearance of a win, especially after the threats Washington had been making for months to sanction anyone connected with the project. Never mind that the U.S. is supposedly Berlin’s closest ally, with troops and nuclear arms based in Germany to protect it from, of all countries, Russia.
So far, the German government has followed Ischinger’s advice and shown little inclination to abandon the pipeline, a move Berlin worries would further provoke Vladimir Putin.
Part of the German calculus in resisting U.S. pressure is a conviction that the U.S. needs Germany almost as much as Germany needs the U.S.
Trump’s “approach comes with damaging consequences, more so for the U.S. than for Germany,” Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a conservative candidate to replace Merkel, told me recently, referring to Trump’s decision to reduce the number of U.S. troops in the country by about one-third. “It’s difficult to work with that kind of irrationality.”
Yet the core of this argument — that the U.S. needs its German presence to “project power” and to carry out endless wars in the Middle East — is rooted more in the realities of the administration of George W. Bush than what U.S. strategy is likely to look like in the years to come as Washington redirects its focus and resources on the Indo-Pacific.
Despite that strategic shift and the deep tensions in the German-American relationship, saying “Auf Wiedersehen” is far from straightforward. The transatlantic lobby – an alphabet soup of German and American think tanks populated by a motley assortment of academics, retired generals and ambassadors, some on the payroll of “military-industrial complex” — is intent on preserving the relationship, come what may. The same is true for many in Congress, including Republicans.
Some observers believe the best way forward would be to “redefine” NATO, by shifting more of the burden to Europe. While Washington has made some progress on this front in recent years, prodding other members to devote more resources to their militaries, the U.S. still accounts for about 70 percent of NATO members’ total defense spending.
“You have to get out of the mindset that this is a protectorate type of relationship … it is corrosive for both sides,” said Dan Hamilton, a prominent American voice on transatlantic affairs who has spent decades rotating between academia and diplomacy on both sides of the Atlantic. “It gives the Americans this kind of patronal attitude towards the Europeans and means the Europeans don’t have to do much.”
Though many Europeans would no doubt welcome that kind of partnership, it’s far from clear that Germans would. Germany, though it has spent more recently, remains a laggard on defense. Indeed, the country’s military is so beset with dysfunction after years of neglect that it is difficult to see a fundamental improvement anywhere on the horizon. Less than half of Germans think military spending should go up, according to a recent study by the Munich Security Conference.
Public perceptions of the U.S. in Germany have rarely been worse. Only 26 percent of Germans have a “positive” view of the U.S., according to a Pew study released last month, the lowest rate in any country except Belgium. That contrasts with favorability ratings for the U.S. of between 40 percent and 45 percent in Spain, Italy and the U.K.
A similarly low percentage of Germans (27 percent) considers the U.S. to be the country’s most important military ally, the Munich Security Conference study found. Roughly half of Germans said France is the country’s most important ally.
On a purely objective basis, the findings are staggering. Whether Germans like it or not, the country’s reliance on the U.S. for its security is to all intents and purposes total.
Even if the U.S. goes through with the troop withdrawal, the country will have more troops in Germany than in almost any other country in the world. Their presence — whether their primary purpose is to protect Germany directly or not — adds to the security umbrella also guaranteed by America’s nuclear arsenal.
Though German economic reliance on the U.S. has waned somewhat with China’s rise, America remains Germany’s biggest export market and a key manufacturing hub for the likes of BMW and Siemens.
Most commentators attribute Germans’ dismal opinion of the U.S. to their visceral dislike of Trump. But that’s only part of the story. Americans who believe most Germans feel they still owe the U.S. any gratitude for rehabilitating the country after World War II and for paving the way for reunification are kidding themselves. Even the country’s elites view America as a “frenemy” at best. The recent social upheaval in the U.S. has convinced even many educated Germans that the country they once looked up to is anything but a model, especially when it comes to democratic norms.
“It is a deeply unjust, and in some ways undemocratic, system,” concluded Michael Butter, a German professor of American literature, during a recent debate with me about the U.S. campaign on German radio.
Germany’s media landscape has become an echo chamber for the idea that America is a deeply flawed, racist, semi-democratic state of gun-toting religious fanatics. At the moment, the country is on the brink of collapse and/or a civil war. The underlying message: Trump is just a symptom of much deeper dysfunction.
While that narrative has taken hold in other countries (including the U.S. itself), it’s rarely told with such fervor or lack of nuance as in Germany.
For an American, it can seem at times that Germans almost wish Trump would be reelected, simply for the “told-you-so” factor. Whether that schadenfreude is rooted in the country’s enduring sense of cultural superiority, the humiliation it suffered at the hands of the U.S. in two world wars, or some combination of thereof, is anyone’s guess.
“Our friendship with America has never really been heartfelt,” a prominent, pro-American member of Merkel’s Christian Democrats confided to me recently over beers.
Crazed and catastrophic
A hot new German bestseller that succeeds in channeling the current mood is titled “Crazed, The American Catastrophe.” The book (and a documentary of the same name due out later this week) argues that the U.S. has devolved into “an angry nation united by nothing but hate.” Klaus Brinkbäumer, the co-author, is a former editor of Der Spiegel and was responsible for the magazine’s famous 2017 cover drawing of Trump beheading the Statue of Liberty, ISIS-style. “Crazed” is the sequel to his 2018 opus, “America’s Obituary.” (Brinkbäumer was also the boss of Der Spiegel’s onetime star reporter, Claas Relotius, who captivated readers for years with fanciful stories that fed German clichés of American life until he was unmasked as a journalistic fraud, his stories full of fabrications.)
With a steady diet of anti-American media coverage, it’s hardly surprising that many Germans expressed more relief than alarm over Trump’s decision to pull out American troops. Nearly half of Germans endorse the move, according to a YouGov poll conducted in August. While one-quarter of Germans want to see the U.S. pull out all troops, less than one-third support maintaining the current troop levels, totaling about 36,000.
While German anti-Americanism has a long history of ups and downs, the current sentiment is grounded in deep policy disagreements that will be difficult to ignore, no matter who occupies the White House.
Similar to its soft-shoe approach to Russia, Berlin has also been reluctant to take any steps that might jeopardize its economic relationship with China, a key trading partner.
Even if Biden wins — as most Germans are praying — there is no reason to expect Germany’s position on China will change, given the economic realities at stake. And even though Biden’s foreign policy advisers, most of whom served in the Obama administration, are known to admire Merkel, she isn’t going to be around for much longer. The chancellor has said she will step down at the end of her current term next fall.
The only candidate in the running to replace her who is likely to deviate from her course on foreign policy — Röttgen — is considered a dark horse.
Another question hanging over the relationship longer term is what happens after Biden is gone, especially if he’s replaced by a Republican. Germany’s political establishment has effectively allied itself with the Democratic party. That fact won’t be lost on the Republicans whenever they return to power.
What also worries strategists in Berlin is that Germany has made virtually no preparations for what to do if Trump surprises everyone and manages to get reelected.
Everyone knows Germany would be exposed, NATO’s future in doubt.
Maximilian Terhalle, a German strategic analyst and scholar, says Germany’s reflex will be to turn to Paris, embracing France’s vision of European “strategic autonomy” and a security architecture “stretching from Lisbon to the Urals.”
That would also entail further rapprochement (read concessions) toward Russia, something Poland and the Baltics would resist tooth and nail. Europe would be divided over security as some countries rush to secure bilateral agreements with the U.S.
But there would be one clear winner.
“Putin’s mantra, that the end of the Cold War was not history’s final verdict, could eventually be vindicated,” Terhalle said.
In other words, McCain, who always wanted to be wrong about Germany, may yet be proved right.