President Trump and the New Parameters of German Foreign Policy

Germany may now pay the price for its failures over the last six years—especially in the context of the euro crisis. In particular, in order to prevent the emergence of a “transfer union,” Germany refused to agree to a greater degree of debt mutualization. This in turn made it impossible to create a fiscal and political union that would have been able to collectively respond to the difficult security questions raised by the election of Trump.

After Donald Trump was elected president of the United States on November 8, a chorus of commentators immediately jumped to the conclusion that the German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the new “leader of the free world.” Comforting as it would be to believe in the idea that the woman known as “mommy” could simply replace the president of the United States as the “leader of the free world” and thus protect the values for which it stands, it is an illusion. Merkel was right to describe such expectations as “absurd” and even “grotesque.” The differences between Germany and the United States as powers in international politics—particularly in terms of military power—make the comparison between the chancellor and the president flawed.

In any case, talk of Merkel as the “leader of the free world” misses the way that the election of Trump threatens to radically change the parameters of German foreign policy. Most dramatically, the US security guarantee on which the Federal Republic has depended since its creation in 1949 is now in question in an unprecedented way. More broadly, many fear that the liberal international order that was created by the United States after 1945, which was already under pressure, could now unravel. If President Trump does seek to “end the US-led liberal order and free America from its international commitments,” as his rhetoric suggests, his election could even turn out to be a more seismic event for Europeans than the end of the Cold War.

Germany is uniquely vulnerable to such a shift in US foreign policy— even if Trump does not go as far as many fear. Over the last few years since the beginning of the euro crisis, there has been renewed discussion about German “hegemony” in Europe. The election of Trump dramatically weakens Germany and creates uncertainty about the conditions upon which German power (which I have characterized as “geo-economic”) is based. It is not just that Germany, like other EU member states, depends on liberal international order, but also that its power in recent years, especially in the context of the EU, has been based on two aspects of US hegemony from which it was able to benefit—or according to critics, on which it was able to “free ride.”

In particular, Germany has depended on two public goods provided by the United States. First, the United States bore disproportionate costs for European security, while German defense spending remained low—even compared to that of many other EU member states. Thus Germany was accused of “free riding” in security terms—in other words of consuming rather than providing security. Second, the United States acted as a consumer of last resort while aggregate demand in Germany remained low—again, even compared to other EU member states. Thus Germany was accused of “free riding” in economic as well as security terms. During the last decade the United States has become gradually less willing to provide each of these two public goods and may now cease to do so altogether.

If this were to happen, it would dramatically weaken Germany. The withdrawal of the US security guarantee would force Germany to rethink its security policy and perhaps even its attitude to nuclear weapons—with huge consequences. Meanwhile a shift towards a more mercantilist approach in US trade policy could undermine the basis of the success of German economy, which has boomed on the back of demand from the United States even as demand from the eurozone “periphery” has slowed. Even if President Trump does not go as far as some fear on alliances or trade, the consequences of his election could undermine the basis of German power. In particular, the new uncertainty about the US security guarantee could transform relations between the EU member states.

There have been many calls for Europeans to pull together since the election—in particular to become more independent of the United States in security terms. However, there are reasons to think that, rather than creating unity among Europeans, the election of Trump could divide Europeans. The ability of the EU to reach compromises that reconcile the different interests of its member states has been badly undermined by the events of the last seven years, which have created new fault lines within it and undermined unity and solidarity. In that sense, Germany may now pay the price for its failures over the last six years—especially in the context of the euro crisis. In particular, in order to prevent the emergence of a “transfer union,” Germany refused to agree to a greater degree of debt mutualization. This in turn made it impossible to create a fiscal and political union that would have been able to collectively respond to the difficult security questions raised by the election of Trump.

The election of Trump may well exacerbate the disintegrative ten dencies within the EU. Historically, the US security guarantee was the precondition for European integration and in particular for the EU as a “peace project.” As Josef Joffe put it in an essay published in 1984, American power “pacified” Europe—that is “muted, if not removed, ancient conflicts and shaped the conditions for cooperation.” The US security guarantee removed what realist international relations theorists see as the prime structural cause of conflict among states: the search for security. In particular, the security guarantee reassured France against the possibility of a resurgent Germany. Thus, as Joffe put it, “by protecting Western Europe against others, the United States also protected the half-continent against itself.” Economic interdependence would not have been possible without the confidence this created.

Many Europeans hoped they could eventually outgrow their strategic dependence on the United States. Some even saw the EU as a potential counterweight to American power. This was part of the thinking behind the creation of the European single currency and the development of a European Security and Defense Policy. But, as the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome approaches, the EU remains a long way away from “strategic autonomy.” Meanwhile European integration has also stopped well short of a political union. In other words, international relations still exist within the EU. The question now is whether, given that the EU has not evolved into a full political union or become independent of the United States in terms of security, the new doubt about the security guarantee could strengthen “centrifugal forces” within the EU.

Beyond disintegration, military power could even once again become a factor in relations between the EU member states. Until now, although military capabilities allowed countries like France and UK to project power beyond Europe, they did not give them power within the EU. Military capabilities could not be used as leverage in negotiations because the US security guarantee meant that other EU member states did not depend on them. However, the new doubt about the US security guarantee could change that—and may already be doing so. In the worst-case scenario, security competition between EU member states could re-emerge and security dilemmas could be reactivated—as realist international relations theorists such as John Mearsheimer argued would happen if the United States withdrew from Europe after the end of the Cold War.

The election of Trump has created huge uncertainty about the US security guarantee and trade policy and—because of the systemic importance of the United States—about the liberal international order. A collapse of this order would clearly be a disaster for Germany—as it would be for other EU member states. Even if Trump does not go as far as many fear in rethinking the US approach to alliances and trade, his presidency could have huge consequences for Germany—including for its role within Europe. Germany has exercised disproportionate power in part because of the irrelevance of military power within the EU. But with the new doubt about the US security guarantee that may now change. In addition, a tougher US approach to trade could undermine German economic success. In short, rather than elevating the German chancellor to the position of “leader of the free world,” the election of Trump may further weaken Germany—even within Europe.

Hans Kundnani

is Senior Research Fellow in the Europe Programme at Chatham House and the author of the book The Paradox of German Power (2014), which has been translated into German, Italian, Korean and Spanish.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

Current issue - 04/2019

The Powerless Are Tired: 1989–2019

This issue provides not only a retrospective look at the last 30 years but also reflects current challenges for the Visegrad group. That found its purpose in the dismantling of liberal democracy, unfortunately for all its citizens. Read the brand new Aspen Review.

Download PDF