Relations between Washington and Berlin have been mediocre as of late. Sadly, so has the public’s opinion about the US in Germany. Accordingly, the public’s reaction to the American troop withdrawal announcement was naïvely positive and marked the latest example of a change for the worse in German perception of the United States.
Details of the Troop Withdrawal Still Unclear
Albeit the extent of the withdrawal remains uncertain and, in fact, may be scrapped after all if Joe Biden wins on November 3. Still, the ongoing discussion appears to have had an impact on the German image of America nonetheless. Specific ideas German used to have about the US have, indeed, shifted significantly as of late.
Gone seem to be the days in which Germans were grateful for America, which has been liberator and protector of the whole continent in the past. While the older generations in Germany have remained cognizant of the latter — at least outside of the former East German GDR states — the current generations of Germans, millennials, in particular, appear to have gotten lost in between a leftist ideology and a shocking degree of ignorance and lack of geopolitical understanding when it comes to America’s role in the world.
The Lessons of History are Being Forgotten in Germany
The ever-increasing distance to the end of World War II and the subsequent period of rivalry between West and the Soviet Union has increasingly weakened the image of the American soldier as a representative of freedom. It coincides with an already drastic withdrawal of US soldiers in Germany in the past 30 years. In 1985 the strength of the American contingent in West Germany was just under 250,000. The current figure is at a seventh of it: only 35,000. The plan now is to withdraw another 11,000 troops.
The latter is apparently no issue for many Germans. In a recent survey, a relative majority of 47 percent of respondents in Germany supported the partial withdrawal.
However, such a shrug of shoulders or even negative attitude towards the presence of American allies in Germany is not new. In an autumn 2019 survey only around half of those questioned answered that they considered an American troop presence in Germany to be an essential contribution to national security — which can be considered the perhaps best IQ test to date.
Anti-Americanism on the Rise
The anti-American sentiments that speak in these numbers also find political resonance in Berlin. The opposition parties Left and Greens, but also Merkel’s coalition partner, the SPD, responded in different ways to the withdrawal announcement with comments and suggestions intended to be confrontational and delimiting instead of cooperative or characterized by efforts to limit the damage.
While the Left Party, the successor party of the GDR’s SED, demands withdrawal of all troops, the Greens favor removal of all US nuclear weapons stationed in Germany. The SPD’s parliamentary group leader, Rolf Mützenich, meanwhile, who had previously also suggested that nuclear weapons needed to disappear from German soil – and thus set himself in opposition to his party colleague and Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas – now proposed that Germany should cease purchasing armaments from the United States in return for the withdrawal of troops.
Domestic Implications of the US Troop Withdrawal
The troop withdrawal is thus likely to have domestic implications also. With his intention to withdraw, Trump may have strengthened the formation of a political will, which in Germany could at least turn against some elements of the American presence that are strategically important in terms of military strategy — and may be used as a foreign policy wedge issue against the CDU during the elections in 2021.
Maas, meanwhile, still holds the argument against the demand for the withdrawal of nuclear weapons. He is cognizant that there are states in Europe that feel that they are far more threatened from a security policy perspective – from Russia. If Germany now foregoes the ability to target tactical nuclear weapons together with the United States, that would also weaken the European security architecture.
However, these geopolitical implications are far off the horizon for Germany’s (young) general public, who seem inclined to say tschüss to realism and guten Tag to naïveté.