With Germany’s federal election looming at the end of September 2017, the country’s campaign season is entering its final stretch. Election posters abound on German high streets, and politicians have come back from their summer holidays to hold campaign rallies all over the country. In addition to the usual campaign slogans, fierce discussions, and live television interviews, this year’s electoral debate is marked by the political noise and unprecedented uncertainty generated by U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration, especially regarding the transatlantic relationship.
But can one speak of a palpable Trump effect on the German electoral debate? If so, what is its nature and what does it foretell about U.S.-German relations going forward? What is clear is that Trump has become a deeply unpopular political figure in Germany, where there is declining confidence in American leadership as a result. However, this largely has not affected the polling fortunes of Germany’s main political figures. Regardless of who becomes the next chancellor, Germany will continue to uphold transatlantic ties and cooperate with Washington where interests align, though Berlin will not hesitate to criticize U.S. policies it strongly disagrees with. How all this plays out will have a significant effect on the future of the transatlantic relationship considering Germany’s growing leadership role and position as a key U.S. ally within the EU.
Trump in German Polls and Media Coverage
According to public opinion polls, the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election has had a dramatic and negative effect on German attitudes not only toward the current U.S. president—whom only 11 percent of Germans trust, according to a June 2017 Pew study—but toward the United States in general. Germany has the most negative view of the United States in Europe with 62 percent of Germans holding an unfavorable opinion of America. Compare this to the 64 percent of Germans who held positive views of the United States at the beginning of former president Barack Obama’s administration and to the 60 percent favorability among Germans early in the George W. Bush years. President Trump has, in a short time, inverted these numbers.
Other studies and polls seem to underscore this negative trend. The United States now ranks lower than China and equal to Russia when it comes to whom Germans consider a trustworthy partner. In fact, a staggering 74 percent of Germans do not think the United States is reliable anymore, according to a June 2017 poll by the German political research institute Infratest dimap. Meanwhile, a Forsa survey revealed that 63 percent of Germans would like German-Russian relations to be improved while only 40 percent would like to see similar efforts on behalf of the transatlantic relationship.
The German media landscape mirrors this attitude toward the new American leadership with thorough and overwhelmingly critical coverage of the U.S. president. Trump is depicted as an unpredictable threat to Europe, liberal values, and world peace. No fewer than six cover pages of the widely read weekly magazine Der Spiegel have featured Trump in this manner so far this year. Meanwhile, German public television has featured political talk shows where politicians and experts ponder over questions like “How Dangerous Is Trump for the World?,” “Trump, Putin, Erdogan—Are They Destroying the World?,” or “Is Trump’s United States Still a Reliable Partner?” Trump’s recent comments about the protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, have received particularly strong condemnation in the German debate.
Looking at these numbers and trends, one may be reminded of previous times in the U.S.-German relationship where the United States was similarly unpopular among Germans and political pundits asked whether the end of the transatlantic bond was nigh. One may also consider the underlying but persistent affinity for anti-Americanism in certain segments of German society that has a tendency to flare up depending on the issues prevalent on the transatlantic agenda, such as the Iraq War under the George W. Bush presidency and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) controversy and the National Security Agency scandal under former president Obama.
However, with President Trump in office, two things have changed. First, it now seems that Germans are not simply criticizing specific issues within the transatlantic relationship anymore. Now, they indeed question Germany’s relationship with the United States altogether because Trump is regarded as a potential danger to the wider liberal democratic order. German foreign policy heavyweights like ex–foreign minister Joschka Fischer and former ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger have warned about the need to avoid falling into patterns of anti-Americanism and the importance of distinguishing between the U.S. leadership and the rest of the country, but these efforts do not seem to be bearing much fruit. Second, politicians on both sides of the political aisle are reacting to this America skepticism in the German population and adjusting both their rhetoric and policy proposals accordingly.
The Trump Effect on German Electoral Politics
In terms of rhetoric, the most notable Trump effect on the German political debate so far was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s much-cited beer hall speech in Bavaria in May 2017. Here, the traditionally low-key chancellor declared that the “times in which we can fully count on others are to a certain extent over” and called for Europe to “take our fate into our own hands.” However, it is important to note that this was not the first time Merkel had distanced herself from the United States under President Trump. She did so back in January 2017, calling for a stronger Europe after President Trump referred to NATO as “obsolete.” With the Bavaria speech, Merkel primarily aimed to portray herself as vigorously pro-European and in favor of strategically strengthening the EU—both a core claim of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and a popular position among German voters, especially following the victory of President Emmanuel Macron in the French elections. Merkel’s remarks did not signal a desire to quit the transatlantic relationship, given her other comments about the need to continue working with the United States and her ongoing efforts to engage with President Trump and his administration.
Nevertheless, Merkel’s Bavarian moment was certainly the first time she felt the need to be clear and outspoken on the current lack of trust in the transatlantic relationship and get more in sync with the country’s increasingly anti-American electorate. In German politics, this is big news, especially considering the chancellor’s conservative party traditionally holds the most U.S.-friendly attitudes among all German parties. The CDU’s hesitancy with Donald Trump is also illustrated by the party’s decision to seemingly downgrade America in their 2017 party manifesto from a “friend and partner” to simply a “partner.” Concurrently, other conservative politicians, such as German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, are following the mantra of accentuating the importance of Germany becoming “more European” and developing better European military capabilities while at the same time “remain[ing] transatlantic.” So far, the CDU’s careful approach of being mindful of the negative perception of Trump’s America in the German public while adhering to the transatlantic partnership in principle does not seem to have punished the party; both the CDU and Merkel herself still poll highly.
Across the political aisle, Merkel’s main rival for the chancellery and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) front-runner, Martin Schulz, has taken a much harsher and more outspoken stance against Trump and his administration. Schulz has repeatedly criticized Trump’s “erratic political style,” compared him to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Hungary’s Victor Orbán, and accused him of political blackmail.
Following Schulz’s example, it has become fashionable within the SPD—by tradition less pro-American than its main rival, the CDU, and more favorable toward a nonconfrontational Ostpolitik approach to Russia—to question Washington’s transatlantic initiatives and intentions. Since the beginning of this election campaign, the Social Democrats have broken with Germany’s pledge to bring Berlin’s defense spending up from its current 1.22 percent of GDP toward NATO’s required 2 percent—something the party originally agreed to in 2014 when Germany signed NATO’s Wales Summit Declaration. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (of the SPD) called the 2 percent goal “completely unrealistic” and said Germany’s federal election will prove to be a “referendum on whether Germany remains a peaceful power or joins Trump’s warfare madness.” Additionally, in response to new U.S. sanctions against Russia, Germany’s Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries (SPD) urged the EU to consider countermeasures against the United States. While the new sanctions are widely unpopular both across German party lines and with the German public, it is very rare for a sitting German politician to openly threaten retaliation against the United States.
While the rising anti-Americanism in Germany under Trump is striking, it is not translating into any sharp effect on the polls. The efforts of Martin Schulz and other senior SPD politicians to gain an advantage over their political competitors by leading a hardline anti-Trump campaign do not appear to have had any significant effect on the SPD’s standing in the polls. The party has plateaued at around the 24 percent level at which it started the year. Nor does Trump seem to have benefited the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Contrast this to the initial fears that Trump’s ascent to power would fuel populists in different parts of Europe, including Germany and France. But just as this did not turn out to be the case in the French elections, it does not seem to be occurring in Germany. If anything, the Trump effect on AfD’s standing may be negative, as the AfD has actually dropped in the polls since Trump’s inauguration. This may indicate that German voters are wary about doing anything to foster Trump’s style of chaos within Germany (although internal party turbulence is probably a more salient factor for explaining the party’s drop in the polls).
Whither U.S.-German Relations After The Election?
With both political elites and broader German public sentiment having become markedly more critical of the United States under Trump, what effect, if any, will this have on Berlin’s approach toward Washington after the election?
The answer will, of course, depend partially on the outcome of the election. All the most likely scenarios foresee Merkel continuing to serve as German chancellor. According to current polls, a CDU-led coalition seems likeliest since even a left-of-center, three-way coalition among the SPD, the Green Party, and the Left Party (Die Linke) would probably struggle to reach over 50 percent of the vote. It is too early to say whether the election will result in the continuation of the grand coalition between the conservatives and the social democrats, a revival of the conservative-liberal coalition with the Free Democratic Party (FDP), or even a three-way coalition between the conservatives, the FDP, and the Green Party. Potentially lengthy coalition negotiations after the election in September will determine this.
Staying on the Atlanticist Course
Yet regardless of which coalition is eventually formed, Berlin will remain committed to the transatlantic partnership going forward, despite Trump’s overwhelming unpopularity in Germany. Of course, the CDU is traditionally more pro-American than the SPD, and more active transatlantic engagement on the part of Berlin would take place if the CDU secures the mandate to form a government. However, even if the SPD were to win or enter into yet another coalition government with the CDU, while it would likely be rhetorically more hostile to Trump, it would nonetheless remain committed to the U.S. relationship. The recent meeting between German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and his counterpart U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, in which Gabriel struck a more diplomatic tone, underscores this argument. There is no foreseeable scenario in which the next German government would turn away from engaging with Washington as its top partner outside of Europe.
Most mainstream German political leaders remain keenly aware of the essential role the United States has played in supporting modern-day Germany and the European project to date. They also appreciate the vital part that the United States plays in upholding the liberal international order. Based on this, it is still widely accepted that there is no real alternative to engagement with the U.S. president and his administration despite strong disagreement with many of Trump’s policies and antics.
If anything, German officials are likely to be even more proactive in explaining their views to their American counterparts, and it seems probable that the next German chancellor will be even more active in engaging the Trump administration after the election, even in areas where there is disagreement. This will be the case particularly if Merkel is reelected. She would take it upon herself to try to ensure that the transatlantic relationship does not reach a breaking point and that policy disagreements are carefully managed across the Atlantic. She would also be expected to use her formidable leadership standing to promote a better atmosphere between European capitals and Washington.
At the same time, Germany’s strong domestic public opposition to Trump, which is likely to persist, means that being seen as too close to Trump could be a liability for the next chancellor. Even if Merkel is reelected, she will be mindful of the strong public sentiments against Trump, especially in consideration of Germany’s upcoming regional elections (the next one is slated to take place in Lower Saxony on October 15, 2017). Moreover, any attempt to try to convince the public to support new transatlantic initiatives could be an uphill battle in a more America-skeptic German domestic political context. As a case in point, the TTIP agreement was highly controversial in the German debate despite being pursued by Obama, a relatively popular American president at the time. A similar trade initiative or for instance a request from the White House for Germany to contribute more troops to NATO’s mission Resolute Support in Afghanistan could prove to be a hard sell domestically.
Working With Trump Where Possible
Regardless of who wins the election, the next German government will continue to engage with the Trump administration on an issue-by-issue basis. Notable areas where there is potential for fruitful exchange and collaboration between Berlin and Washington include (but are not limited to) the Ukraine crisis, intelligence and counterterrorism efforts, and the broader transatlantic defense architecture under NATO.
Managing the Ukraine crisis will continue to be a key foreign policy priority for Germany. Hence, any signals that the U.S. administration might step up its own direct role and try to resolve the conflict pursuant to the Minsk agreement are welcome in Berlin, but any move by Washington to supply arms to the Ukrainian military would be met with skepticism.
Intelligence sharing for combatting terrorism is not a new issue on the U.S.-German agenda. On this front, the two countries are expected to continue and expand their cooperation, which German Interior Minister Thomas De Maiziere described as “excellent” in May 2017, shortly after Chancellor Merkel’s Bavaria speech. However, a transition to a SPD-led government could affect this cooperation, given that Thomas Opperman, the chairman of the SPD Parliamentary Group, described President Trump’s handling of classified information as a “security risk for the West” and told German intelligence agencies to reassess their cooperation with the United States.
Nonetheless, Berlin and Washington can also be expected to continue their close work on transatlantic security under NATO. Despite Trump’s initial criticism of the alliance, his failure to mention Article 5 during remarks at the new NATO headquarters in May, and his strong words about Germany’s lack of defense contributions on multiple occasions, Germany is emerging as one of Washington’s key European defense policy partners.
The strong desire from Washington for Germany to step up its defense spending has been noted by German officials—even before Trump took office. Over the past several years, Merkel has continuously acknowledged the need for Germany to meet the 2 percent spending target, albeit gradually, and Defense Minister von der Leyen has defended the government’s decision as recently as August 2017. An SPD-led government, on the other side, would be wary about being too accommodating toward Trump on this issue. It would favor investing more in development aid and humanitarian efforts instead, while rejecting the need to spend 2 percent on defense—a move that would put Berlin and Washington increasingly at odds, although NATO cooperation would still continue.
Remaining Vocal About Disagreements
Germany has not been afraid of voicing its disagreements with Washington in the past. Notable examples of vocal German criticism of U.S. policy include the Iraq War in 2003 under then president George W. Bush and the NSA scandal in 2013 under then president Obama. What is different from these past clashes is that under Trump, Berlin and Washington are now at loggerheads over a whole host of issues. On matters that Germany feels particularly strongly about, such as—but not only—global trade, climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement, and U.S. sanctions against European energy companies, the next German government can be expected to continue not holding back criticism against the Trump administration when there are disagreements.
On trade, the Trump administration’s protectionist ambitions have Germany concerned. While the administration seems to have moved away from the controversial border adjustment tax idea, the issue of Germany’s bilateral trade surplus means that trade is likely to continue to be a sticking point in the U.S.-German relationship, especially given the importance Trump attaches to the issue. Moreover, the administration’s threat to impose new steel sanctions alarms Berlin because it could hit European companies and undermine the World Trade Organization and, consequently, the broader multilateral trading order. Given the strong German consensus on the importance of free and open global trade, one should therefore expect the next chancellor to not hold back when it comes to criticizing the United States on this matter. At the same time, Berlin will continue to engage the Trump administration to moderate its protectionist instincts, including efforts to engage the United States in the G7 and G20 formats. While the TTIP negotiations are unlikely to resurface, it is possible that the issue of transatlantic trade could return to the agenda in some fashion during the next four years.
On climate change, Trump’s announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement sent shockwaves through Berlin. As a response, Germany—together with France and Italy—has already rejected Trump’s proposal to negotiate a less ambitious version of the deal. Instead, Berlin has started engaging directly with U.S. states and local authorities, as well as with the American private sector and nongovernmental organizations. Bypassing the White House when such disagreements occur is likely to become more common in the next four years.
As for the Iran nuclear agreement, it is important to note that, across party lines, Germany regards the deal as one of the biggest victories of diplomacy in recent years. For Berlin, it not only proved the benefits of a nonmilitary approach but also reopened the door for expanding economic ties between Berlin and Tehran. President Trump, on the other side, described it as one of the “the worst deals ever.” His decision on whether to stick to the current agreement will likely be made after the ninety-day White House review period ends in October. If he does not uphold the deal, Berlin can be expected to openly and strongly voice its disagreement with Washington, regardless of who enters the chancellery after the federal election. While this would not be the first time Germany and the United States would be at odds over Iran, it would certainly be regarded in Berlin as yet another serious crack in American reliability.
On the issue of U.S. extraterritorial sanctions against Russia, Berlin has strongly criticized the bipartisan congressional bill that Trump signed. Germany is concerned the bill seeks to target European energy companies working on projects that involve Russia. In particular, there are concerns that the bill will target the Russian energy firm Gazprom’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline over the Baltic Sea, which Germany supports. While the project is more popular among SPD leaders, with former SPD politician and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder serving as chairman of the board of Nord Stream AG, even Merkel has been careful not to oppose it. As a result, energy policy is likely to represent an area where the United States and Germany will butt heads.
In sum, the next German government will likely be vocal about any disagreements it has with the United States while staying committed to the transatlantic relationship in principle. When necessary, Berlin may attempt to work around the White House in areas where the transatlantic partners disagree by engaging other players in the United States such as Congress, state and local governments, and the private sector. Given the increasingly important role of Congress in policing the administration, Germany and many other European countries have already stepped up their engagement on Capitol Hill.
Germany’s Intensifying Efforts to Strengthen Europe
As a kind of partial insurance policy against the growing uncertainty and disruption surrounding U.S. foreign policy under Trump, one can anticipate that the next German chancellor will likely devote significant attention to shoring up the European project. The EU serves as Berlin’s primary vehicle for exerting global leadership. Germany will likely intensify its efforts to strengthen and reform fiscal, monetary, and foreign policy within the EU framework. Special attention will be paid to tapping into the positive momentum generated by the election of Emmanuel Macron in France for strengthening the Franco-German partnership and exploring potential eurozone reforms.
This will likely manifest itself in a range of policy areas. Berlin will push the EU to play a greater leadership role in the absence of the United States on the issues of global trade and climate change. Germany also will continue to bolster European defense capabilities. However, it would be a mistake to expect a muscular German foreign policy even if Merkel is reelected. Germany and Europe will stay dependent on the United States and NATO for the foreseeable future, and the German public is likely to remain incredibly wary of any domestic German military initiative. Berlin defines itself and its strength primarily through the EU, speaking of its responsibilities and contributions in relation to the EU but rarely about German leadership. For that very reason, however, Berlin will likely continue to promote and support collaborative European defense initiatives beyond the NATO framework, such as the European Defense Fund, or the option of permanent structured cooperation (PESCO), not to substitute for but to complement the transatlantic alliance.
The drawback to Germany’s preference for a multilateral approach is that EU reform is a long process and one should not expect any dramatic reforms, such as EU treaty changes, in the short term. Moreover, while the European project is currently reinforced by a wave of enthusiasm within Germany, it would be naïve to overlook the internal differences among other EU member states, some of which have even been exacerbated by the Trump presidency.
U.S.-German Relations in the Age of Trump
The arrival of Donald Trump in the White House has been like a series of lightning bolts across European debates and thinking. However, its actual effects on political outcomes and foreign-policy outcomes appears to be modest. In Germany’s domestic debate, anti-American sentiments are rising and the traditional role of the United States is increasingly questioned, but there is no apparent Trump effect on how the parties are faring in the election polls.
Still, the list of disagreements between Germany and the United States has grown, and Trump is undeniably impacting how Germany is going to position itself toward its partner across the Atlantic in the next couple of years. After the election in late September, Berlin will have increased confidence to speak out against Washington in times of disagreement, while strengthening its engagement efforts with the United States where possible with an eye toward keeping the rocky aspects of the transatlantic relationship at bay and strengthening the EU’s international voice. The next chancellor will have to navigate carefully for this dual strategy to work out.
Viola Meyerweissflog is research assistant to the director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where she concentrates on U.S.-German relations, EU policy, and challenges to the transatlantic partnership.