Changing of the guard in Germany
While Saturday’s 30th anniversary of German reunification was a major moment for the EU’s most populous state, its eyes are just as much focused on the US presidential election. The Donald Trump-Joe Biden contest may be the most important election for US-German relations, and the broader transatlantic alliance, for at least a generation.
If Biden wins, a significant degree of normality will be restored, although relations may still not be “business as usual.” If Trump prevails, all bets could be off for at least the next four years. On trade, for example, the US president called Germany “very bad” this year because of its significant trade surplus, and singled out key sectors such as the car industry for tariffs. Moreover, further significant US troop cuts in Germany are also possible after the 12,000 announced in August.
And former Trump national security adviser John Bolton has indicated the president could even pull Washington out of NATO, in part because of Berlin’s failure to spend the required 2 percent of GDP on defense.
These brewing tensions have already poisoned German public opinion of Trump; only 10 percent of the population have confidence in him “to do the right thing in world affairs,” compared with more than 90 percent for Barack Obama when Germans were asked the same question from 2009 to 2016.
Germans, like many others across the world, increasingly fear that 2016 was a historical turning point in the three decades since unification. That, of course, was the year of Trump’s election and the UK’s voeg to leave the EU, an institution many Germans cherish. What was so striking about both these events was that two countries known for political stability and being traditional rule makers in the international order made the world a significantly more uncertain place. By the end of this year we will know whether Trump has a further four years in office, and if London leaves the EU with or without a trade agreement.
If Trump is re-elected, the populist, nationalist tide he represents will secure another major victory while the center ground internationalist agenda that Merkel believes is key for Germany’s future will take another hit.
A further source of angst for many Germans is that, amid this international uncertainty, Angela Merkel’s chancellorship will end next year after more than a decade and a half. She has long been the most important political leader in continental Europe. Three US presidents (George Bush, Obama and Trump), four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron), and five UK prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson) have served during her watch.
By the end of her fourth term, she will have matched Helmut Kohl’s 16 years of office from 1982 to 1998 and surpassed Konrad Adenauer’s from 1949 to 1963. Merkel will sit behind only Otto von Bismarck’s record of almost two decades in power from 1871–90.
It remains unclear who (if anyone) in Germany can fill her political shoes. This is a worry not just there, but also across Europe and the wider world too, given that the country is the anchor (alongside France under Macron) in the 27-member EU, and in the era of Trump, she is perhaps the leading international proponent of liberal democracy.
Since she became head of the CDU, there have been a series of disagreements with the US over issues from the Middle East, including the Iraq war, through to the rise of China with US-German differences emerging over the best way to engage Beijing. Yet until the Trump presidency, the two powers generally continued to agree on a broad range of issues such as international trade, backing for a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians along Oslo principles, and support for the international rules-based system and the supranational organizations that make it work.
Today, however, many more of these key principles are being undermined by Trump’s agenda to disrupt the established Western order that Merkel has come to embody. And if this uncertainty were not enough, it has coincided with a wider range of foreign policy challenges for Germany, including an increasing assertive Russia, and instability in Europe’s wider “near abroad” of the Middle East and Africa.
As Germans reflect on these issues this symbolic weekend, the implications matter much more to Europe and the world at large too. For if Trump is re-elected, the populist, nationalist tide he represents will secure another major victory while the center ground internationalist agenda that Merkel believes is key for Germany’s future will take another hit.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics