This article is part of our special report US Election Special 2020: What to watch and why it matters.
Many in Donald Trump’s administration see Germany as its main ideological antagonist on the global stage. With this week’s US presidential election, Berlin is hoping for a “new beginning in the transatlantic partnership,” whoever wins.
However, experts believe that with Trump or Joe Biden, little will change on many of the issues where the current administration clashed with Berlin, from the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and Russia to relations with China.
Trump remains deeply unpopular in Germany, according to a recent Pew Research poll, and his low ratings are rivalled only by George W. Bush in Pew’s March 2003 poll, at the height of tensions over the Iraq War.
They are even more striking for a country which saw the United States as a model for freedom, prosperity and progress after the Second World War, and then as a big supporter of German unity in the early 1990s.
A troubled four years
Over the past four years, Berlin has seen a transformation from a foreign policy slacker to a champion of multilateralism and leader in the fight against climate change. This created deep divides between Berlin and Washington, especially after the Trump administration exited several international treaties.
The personal relationship between Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel has hit several low points and Germany has been a frequent target of Trump’s criticism, most notably on defence spending and perceived economic protectionism.
Although Germany continues to see the US as the EU’s closest foreign and security policy partner, the recent US troop withdrawal plans added another twist to the strained relations between Berlin and Washington.
Both Trump and his former Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, accused the country of free-riding in NATO by “not paying its fair share” on defence, as well as of “eroding solidarity” within the military alliance. Eventually, Trump pulled 12,000 troops out of Germany in July.
He also took aim at German cars, suggesting that there should be a 35% tariff on them, although many German automakers, such as BMW, VW, and Daimler, have large-scale US operations and manufacturing facilities.
Since 2015, the US has been the biggest market for German exports in goods, which moved Trump to repeatedly criticize the country for its export surplus. Germany’s industry has said it supports efforts to defuse the trade conflict and achieve normalisation of relations.
“Germany is a country that has traditionally in the EU been very focused on getting regulation, right and making sure we don’t over-regulate in technology and digitalisation,” Casper Klinger, vice-president of European government affairs at Microsoft, said at a recent event.
“A lot of us will look towards Berlin for filling a little bit of that vacuum and making sure that Europe will hit in the right direction,” he added.
No going back, even with a ‘reset’
Regardless of past clashes or the election outcome, Germany and Europe will have to prepare themselves for “less American involvement in the world,“ foreign minister Heiko Maas recently stated.
The German government will “approach Washington with proposals soon after the elections – as a contribution to a new, transatlantic agenda,” Maas announced, adding: “We need a new common understanding of the global ‘rules of the game’ that have been violated by various parties in recent years.”
However, seldom has Berlin longed for a change of power in Washington as it does now, as German politicians hope for a potential wind of change in transatlantic relations.
“We don’t have the luxury of wasting any more time to wait for something to happen in Washington or something not to happen,” MP Peter Beyer (CDU), coordinator of transatlantic cooperation in the German Federal Foreign Office, said at a recent event.
Especially regarding defence spending, Beyer acknowledged that “the demands of the US on us would be at least equally as high as under Trump”, but there would be “much better communication, respect for each other, and a serious will to advance in joint cooperation even in trade negotiations”.
A Biden win would mean “much greater opportunities to develop common transatlantic solutions to the challenges of the 21st century,” MP Dagmar Freitag (SPD), co-chair of the German Bundestag parliamentary group with the US, told EURACTIV.
However, even if Biden ultimately wins, most agree that things will not go back to the way they were before Trump.
“No one should be under the illusion that all problems in the transatlantic relationship will be solved as soon as Trump leaves the White House,” Freitag said.
She is also convinced that relations with China, a key issue of Washington’s foreign policy approach to Europe and a designated priority of Germany’s EU presidency, will be “one of the sticking points of the transatlantic debate in the coming years.”
Finding “a common stance can only be the result of a dialogue in which both sides move toward each other,” Freitag added.
A common language is also desperately needed towards Russia, according to Green MP Jürgen Trittin, member of the German Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“We have very different attitudes toward dealing with Russia. […] But what Washington pursues with regards to Moscow, for example in energy policy, is after all a national bipartisan consensus, and that is why this conflict is due to be continued,” Trittin told EURACTIV.
The predictions for the relationship if Trump is reelected are far more pessimistic. Green MP Cem Özdemir did not mince his words about the prospect, saying it would be “a catastrophe for global cooperation and a gift to the Putins, Erdogans and Xis of this world.”
Under a second Trump administration, Özdemir said, relations would revolve mostly around “damage control.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]