As Angela Merkel’s tenure as Germany’s Chancellor ends, many journalists and historians will rush to write about her legacy. Politico’s Matthew Karnitschnig recently produced a piece on how Donald Trump is not entirely to blame for the German-American ‘affair’ ending. Equally, neither is the current Chancellor. When she was elected in 2005, she revived the alliance between her nation and the US.
Before her 2005 victory, the relationship between George W. Bush and Gerhard Schröder, Merkel’s predecessor, reached an all-time low during the 2003 Iraq War. In Oliver Stone’s film W, Bush criticises Schröder for supporting the conflict and then betraying his word to the then US President during Germany’s 2002 federal election. Karnitscnig said Germany’s opposition to the Iraq War left a wound that was never completely healed between both nations. Merkel’s predecessor also disagreed with the US over Guantanamo Bay.
But circumstances changed when Merkel was elected. Although she disagreed with Bush over Kosovo’s entry into NATO in 2008, he later described the Chancellor in his memoir, Decision Points, as one of his ‘closest allies.’ She even attended George H.W. Bush’s funeral last year as she met Bush Senior during his 2009 trip to Berlin to commemorate twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
When Barack Obama succeeded Bush in 2009, the German-American alliance grew stronger. Reuters produced a series of photos that captured how close the former President and the Chancellor are to this day. When Obama visited Cologne and Berlin earlier this year to discuss Trans-Atlantic relations, Merkel hugged her former colleague. During his last international trip in November 2016, Obama described the Chancellor as one of his ‘favourite partners’ during his time in office.
Following Trump’s election, this partnership has strayed into new territory. During last week’s UN General Assembly meeting, both the Chancellor and the current President seemed to avoid each other. Trump has been persistent from the start of his presidency that Germany must meet its NATO defence spending targets, and Merkel’s heir-apparent, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, will not escape scrutiny over this matter considering she has presided over defence since her appointment in July.
According to Politico, Berlin is so terrified about the deterioration in the ties with its biggest trading partner that the German Foreign Office is sponsoring a special initiative called ‘Wunderbar Together’, a yearlong series of events across the US intended to remind Americans how much the two nations truly like each other. DW discovered that the Germans they polled universally dislike Trump whilst most Americans quizzed by Fact Tank were mostly positive about Germany.
With the Trump administration engaged in preventing refugees from entering America, Merkel is perceived among some in the White House as a villain who enabled ‘floods of immigrants’ to enter Europe. Washington and Berlin disagree over trade, Iran, climate change and defence spending. Considering the current President is also an enthusiastic supporter of Brexit compared to his German counterpart, his offer of a UK-US trade deal has also caused a rift between both sides.
Both the Bush and the Obama administrations urged Germany to increase its defence spending, but Trump’s efforts have gotten Berlin’s attention to a certain extent. Recent suggestions by US officials that Washington might transfer its German-based troops to Poland were met with no resistance. Some joked it might mean this would keep them off Trump’s radar. It makes strategic sense to relocate American soldiers closer to the Russian border, but with the threat of Putin looming, Germany still requires protection.
Tragically, the American-German relationship has reached a new low, but neither Trump nor Merkel are entirely to blame for that. For years, Germany has been refusing to increase its defence spending and Berlin has made no effort to meet Washington halfway here. Policy differences between the Chancellor and the current President were inevitable given they are polls apart on many issues. But the Iraq War caused this partnership to deteriorate, and Merkel can say she revived it albeit briefly between 2005-16. With Russia and China growing stronger, the world needs this alliance to survive, especially when both countries are influential NATO states.