“Taking our Fate into our own Hands”: U.S.-German Relations in Merkel’s Fourth Term

Chancellor Angela Merkel and the rest of Germany’s political leaders ran a soporific campaign for the September 24 Bundestag elections, largely ignoring many pivotal challenges that confront the country. Germany’s voters delivered a shock to the establishment parties, with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party winning 13 percent of the vote, and the governing “Grand Coalition” parties losing 13.7 points compared to the 2013 election. Merkel now will try to assemble a coalition with the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), the free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the Greens, a four-party arrangement that would be unprecedented. The coalition negotiations will have to address many of the difficult issues that everyone knows are looming: Brexit, the future of the European Union, and Germany’s role in it; how the German economy should address economic and technological change resulting from globalization; how to integrate successfully hundreds of thousands of migrants; and how to deal with an assertive Russia that endangers the European security and political order that has served Europe (and Germany most of all) for 70 years. For the United States, there are three main takeaways from Merkel’s fourth term: that the German chancellor does not seek the mantle of global leadership that many Western liberals wish she would don; that the Trump administration, like it or not, needs Germany’s help to achieve many of its highest priorities; and that rash moves by Washington, such as a unilateral withdrawal from or sabotage of the Iran nuclear agreement or the introduction of steel tariffs, could force Merkel to distance Germany from the U.S. administration and put the partnership with the United States’ most important European ally in deep jeopardy.

Merkel has been anointed the “Leader of the Free World” by a multitude of English-language news outlets, but this designation arose from default, not desire. The chancellor herself is not having any of it. German voters clearly value her calm and steady hand at the head of Europe’s most influential government, but publicly Merkel strives to avoid cloaking herself in a leadership role that Germany’s size and influence would merit (and that any candidate in a British, French, or American election would seek to project). Nevertheless many Western observers are fervently scanning the horizon for a champion of the liberal international order to fill the vacuum opening up as the United States steps away from its traditional role.

The chancellor forces the United States to recall its own principles. In her tart congratulatory message to Donald Trump on November 9, 2016, she offered the president-elect close cooperation but pointedly observed that the U.S.-German partnership could only be based on shared Western values such as the rule of law and the rights of all individuals regardless of race, origin, or sexual orientation. This self-confident and morally grounded approach demonstrates on the one hand the success of the postwar U.S. policy to promote German rehabilitation, yet it is extraordinary on the other that a German leader would need politically to invoke those values that the United States advanced, through the Marshall Plan and NATO, such as open markets, free trade, and the rule of law. Merkel has stated that, at least for the next four years, Germany and Europe cannot completely rely on the United States and must take their fate into their own hands. Will Merkel devote what most people assume will be her final term in office to make Germany an alternate pole of internationalism around which Washington’s bereft allies can coalesce? Unlikely, especially after the shock of this election result has highlighted the deep fissures in German society that the mainstream parties must seek to address.

Merkel is above all pragmatic and methodical, favoring step-by-step approaches rather than grand gestures to reshape the political landscape and assert dominance. This method is effective and has allowed a woman from East Germany with no roots in the party institutions of West Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to rise to the party’s leadership and be on the verge of a record-tying fourth term as chancellor. Persistence and patience are central to her success, but so is caution, and she will not seek to challenge Washington’s global leadership role, even if the United States effectively is abandoning it.

But patience has its limits, even in German politics. When confronted by fundamental decisions, Merkel has demonstrated steel and a readiness to shift course decisively and controversially, such as after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when she reversed her government’s policy and accelerated Germany’s phaseout of nuclear energy, to the consternation of many in her own party. Most famously, in 2015, Merkel abruptly decided to allow thousands of migrants and refugees stranded in Hungary to enter Germany, a decision that has reshaped German politics and catalyzed the rise of the AfD, the first far-right party to enter the parliament in the postwar period. Merkel also makes uneasy values-based compromises. While she did not waver on the broader question of protecting potential refugees within EU territory despite enormous political pressure, she quietly toughened Germany’s policy on returns and forged an agreement with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey to prevent migrants from coming to Europe.

President Trump will need Merkel’s support to achieve some of his top priorities. Europe is the United States’ closest political and security partner, the U.S.-EU economic relationship is the largest on the planet, and the U.S. trade relationship with Germany is the United States’ largest in Europe. Achieving U.S. international economic goals therefore will require cooperation, as U.S. trade representative Robert Lighthizer acknowledged in a recent public discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lighthizer identified China’s growing international role as the Trump administration’s top global economic challenge and said that, “Working with Europe on a whole variety of other things, including the challenge with China, is important.” The path to addressing that priority starts in Berlin and will require the United States to find common ground with Germany and the European Union.

The mutual interdependence of Germany and the United States does not make cooperation inevitable, however. Germany relies on the U.S. security umbrella, and Merkel is a leading pro-U.S. voice. Her likely coalition partners also broadly support the transatlantic relationship. But the Trump administration should not assume unlimited flexibility and temporizing by Merkel. The biggest near-term test will be President Trump’s unknown approach to the Iran nuclear agreement. Germany is one of the parties to the deal and ensuring adherence by Iran is one of Berlin’s top priorities. Berlin has no doubts that Tehran is complying with its obligations under the agreement, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), despite problematic Iranian behavior in other serious areas. Should the Trump administration decertify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in October or take other steps to deliberately undermine it, Berlin is highly unlikely to follow Washington. Rather than joining a U.S.-led effort to reimpose crushing international nuclear sanctions, Berlin would likely join with its EU partners to oppose such steps, guaranteeing U.S. isolation and narrowing Washington’s options. Transatlantic and U.S.-German relations would not quickly recover from such a test. If by contrast, Trump decides to follow French president Emmanuel Macron’s suggestion to start separate negotiations on Iran’s missile program or its regional role, Germany may find a way to be supportive and would want to be at the table.

The relationship between the United States and Germany has a high degree of built-in historical resilience as a result of the security partnership within NATO, Germany’s hosting of U.S. troops on its soil, and the intense ties of these two advanced economies, but this resiliency has been repeatedly tested and has eroded over the past 15 years. It is a deep irony that Berlin, as a product of the principles and international orientation inculcated by the United States over 70 years of postwar stewardship, may challenge Washington in order to preserve the international order that the United States constructed.

Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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