US-German relations - Even under Trump the US is not an isolationist power

The strategic partnership between Germany and the USA is changing. But the American point of view on global politics is more complex and sophisticated than most Europeans acknowledge. Merkel must to some extent assist Trump, if she wants the partnership to continue. A reply to Christian Hacke

Angela Merkel und Donald Trump
Merkel, Trump: Should a conflict occur, Germany does not have the ability to make a strategic contribution / picture alliance


George Friedman ist einer der bekanntesten geopolitischen Analysten in den Vereinigten Staaten. Der 67 Jahre alte Politologe leitet den von ihm gegründeten Publikation Geopolitical Futures und ist Autor zahlreicher Bücher. Zuletzt erschien „Flashpoints – Pulverfass Europa“ im Plassen-Verlag.

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Christian Hacke, a distinguished German scholar, has written an important article on the future of Germany’s national strategy. He has done well in laying out Germany’s options from a German point of view, as well as identifying uncomfortable conversations that the country needs to have. I think, however, that the American point of view, even under President Donald Trump, is more complex and sophisticated than most Europeans acknowledge.

In the article Hacke raises as one of the possible courses for Germany that it may become a self-reliant nuclear power. The mere suggestion makes this an important article – though it is a conversation that has been had before, most recently in the wake of Trump’s election – but equally important is that the article is heavily focused on the United States. To a great extent, German national strategy will be a response to the willingness of the United States to continue its internationalist policy. The conversation should begin here.

Accusations of US-isolationism historically unfounded

The United States has never been an isolationist power. Just as Germany historically focused its activities on Europe, especially France and Russia, the United States historically focused on the Americas and the Caribbean. Hacke points to the 1920s and 1930s, when the United States refused to be drawn into Europe’s regional politics, as evidence of American isolationism. But the U.S. was not an isolationist power even then – it was significantly involved in Asia and the Pacific. In the 1920s, Washington negotiated a naval agreement with Japan, the United Kingdom, France and Italy. In the 1930s, it helped China resist Japan, even sending patrol boats and aircraft. The U.S. had a major stake in the Philippines and took significant action against Japan as it became more active, from arming the Chinese to placing an embargo on Japan after it invaded Indochina. The story is more extensive and complex, but the point is that at the same time the Allies (and Americans who advocated intervention in Europe) were condemning Roosevelt for isolationism, Roosevelt was trying to manage Japanese expansionism.

This is one of the peculiarities of European thinking about the United States: the belief that if the U.S. is not involved in Europe, it is not involved in the world. U.S. national strategy has never boiled down to internationalism or isolationism but has focused on selective engagement in regions of American interest. In the interwar period, the U.S. defended its interests in the Pacific and Asia but saw great risk with little reward in Europe. It was prudence, not isolationism, that drove Roosevelt.

Still involved all over the world

Neither is the U.S. absent from the world under Trump. It is working to redefine its trade relationships with Mexico and Canada, its core trading bloc, as well as with most of the world’s other major trading powers, including Europe. Its military is hardly isolated either. The U.S. recently averted war with North Korea. The U.S. Navy is perpetually active in the East and South China seas. American forces remain engaged in active combat in Afghanistan, Syria and a number of Saharan countries. The U.S. has active deployments in Romania and Poland and cooperation in the Baltics.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have deployed in the wars of the past 17 years. In none of these conflicts, or potential conflicts, did the Germans serve a strategic role. It’s true that more than 50 German soldiers have died in Afghanistan, but the German deployment there, which consists of relatively small detachments under rules of engagement that limit their role severely, is an exception. German rotations to Poland or Romania do not constitute a strategic capability. Should a conflict occur, Germany does not have the ability to make a strategic contribution.

Europe’s strategic situation has changed

In part, this is because it has had the U.S. and Nato to fall back on, and in part, it’s because Germany’s world is much smaller than the United States’ world – and, at least right now, it’s less dangerous. American indifference to Germany does not arise from domestic politics but from an understanding that it has been a quarter of a century since the fall of the Soviet Union. Europe’s strategic situation has changed utterly. It clings to an institutional framework, ato, that has lost its relevance. The continued existence of NATO since the Cold War has enabled the Europeans to dedicate more resources to economic development – something they are loathed to give up and Trump is determined to end.

Hacke argues that the United States is abandoning its long-standing internationalist commitment to Europe. But Nato is a military alliance. To have a military alliance, you must have a military. Germany doesn’t really have one, as Hacke points out. What’s more, it isn’t clear that Germany’s commitment to the alliance is unconditional. I was recently in conversation with national security experts from Europe and the United States. I brought up that if the United States had to rush forces to the Eastern European frontier, they would have to pass through military bases in Germany. I asked if the Germans would permit the free passage of U.S. military forces. The answers ranged from „probably“ to „I don’t know.“ I assume they would, but the idea that the question would even come up and be answered with less than an absolute „of course“ indicates a lack of trust in Germany.

Do Germany and the US still need each other?

From the American point of view, with so many of its problems to be found in Asia, an alliance structure in Europe dependent on the U.S. simply doesn’t address U.S. strategic needs. Moreover, as Trump’s comments about Montenegro demonstrated, the U.S. increasingly sees Nato as a potential liability. When Nato admitted Montenegro in June 2017, the U.S. became legally obligated to guarantee the security of a country in a region where conflict is always possible. This obligation applies to every NATO member, but the U.S. would shoulder most of the cost. Given all the other interests of the United States, is it unwise to have treaty-based exposure in the Balkans as well, particularly as most of the rest of Europe, especially Germany, would be incapable of honoring its treaty obligations. Europe, on the other hand, hears any call for an adjustment of Nato as a betrayal of the American commitment to European security.

It is not clear that the United States and Germany need each other strategically any longer. Economically, they have relationships. The U.S. would welcome Germany addressing the United States’ strategic problems, but the Germans don’t need the risk. The Germans want American commitment, without an appropriate force, and confined to Europe.

The question is not just America’s relationship to Germany, but Germany’s relationship to America. If what Germany wants is American guarantees and capabilities without German capabilities – and therefore without the ability on the part of Germany to fulfill its own guarantees – the relationship will atrophy and ultimately collapse. If Germany wants the strategic partnership to continue, it must become a strategic partner. It must to some extent assist the U.S. globally, and have the force to do so. What is not clear is that this is in Germany’s interest.

All of this has little to do with the personalities or desires of Trump or German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The United States has burst forth from its continent, while Germany has burrowed down. This makes for very different worldviews.

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Liebe Leserinnen und Leser,

wir freuen uns, mit George Friedman einen der bekanntesten geopolitischen Analysten für uns gewonnen zu haben. Ab sofort wird der US-Politologe und Leiter der Publikation Geopolitical Futures regelmäßig seine gleichnamige Kolumne „Geopolitical Futures“ hier auf Cicero Online veröffentlichen. Seine englischsprachigen Texte sollen nicht nur Ihnen einen Blick über den hiesigen medialen Tellerrand hinaus ermöglichen, sondern auch Leser und Leserinnen aus dem Ausland erreichen. Wir wünschen Ihnen viel Spaß beim Lesen und kluge Erkenntnisse.

Ihr Alexander Marguier, Chefredakteur des Cicero

Gisela Fimiani | Do, 2. August 2018 - 15:04

Germany was never willing to „put the US hat on“. As long as the relationship served the Germans well it was accepted, not liked though by many. Anti-Amaricanism was always viral and on the rise again. This country seems to mostly consist of moral world champions without the ability to see beyond its own dogmatic and know-all attitude. Arrogance and vanity replace any agenda. The worldview can only be feared.

Michael Murmurachi | Do, 2. August 2018 - 15:45

An excellent analysis of underlying different interests. Interests are what drives nations, not friendships. To show much clearer the differences in capabilities, which also imply a completely different wealth of options to pursue interests, shown between Germany and the U.S. Following some numbers of aircraft of the NATO Allied Force Air Tasking Order in Europe:
Total 1055, US 730, Germany 15 (14 Tornados, 1 C-160). The number of aircraft reflects allocations rather than the total number of aircraft in theater or associated with a particular unit.

Germany’s contribution to the Allied Force Air Tasking Order in Europe is just 2.05% of the US contribution. The U.S. is big, her thinking is big, whereas Germany is small, and thinking is narrowminded.

That said, Angela Markel’s comment about US reliability shows exactly that narrowmindedness, ignorance, and a piece of imprudence. How can anyone interact with that? Especially, with the completely different operating theaters in mind.

Maria Bohm | Do, 2. August 2018 - 17:12

Ich sehe leider nicht die klugen Köpfe, nicht in Deutschland, nicht in Europa, die in kluger Weise eine strategische Idee für die Zukunft noch für einen adäquaten Umgang mit den Nachbarstaaten hätten. Was haben wir? Kommunisten, Sozialisten, Staatskriminelle, Ängstliche....aber wenn nichts anderes herangewachsen ist...

Stephan Maier | Fr, 3. August 2018 - 00:03

One major difference between the us and germany of today is that by some polls the us is the most hated country the world whereas germany is not seen as a theat to major reagons in the world.

Of course the bully needs to be stronger than the nerd .. or something like that. This comment is of course not 100% seriouse.

Christoph Kuhlmann | Fr, 3. August 2018 - 15:24

entscheidende Schlachtfeld des dritten Weltkrieges gewesen. Die Rüstungsspiralen des kalten Krieges hatten dafür gesorgt, dass ein Zerstörungspotential aufgebaut wurde, welches das Überleben in Zentraleuropa im Kriegsfalle unwahrscheinlich machte. Durch die Entspannungspolitik, fielen letztendlich die Mauern und die Menschen konnten in Freiheit und Frieden leben, ohne befürchten zu müssen durch eine diplomatische Krise, einen Computerfehler oder einen fanatischen Politiker ausgerottet zu werden. Natürlich hat man die hohen Rüstungsausgaben gesenkt und das Geld lieber dafür verwendet, das Wohlstandsgefälle innerhalb Europas abzumildern. Zusammenbrechenden Volkswirtschaften bei der Konversion zu helfen. Vor dem Hintergrund dieser Erfahrung, lassen sich höhere Militärausgaben in einer Demokratie nur schwer rechtfertigen. Atomwaffen schon gar nicht. Die Ukraine ist weit und Russland wird irgendwann einsehen, dass die paar Provinzen es nicht wert sind einen Wirtschaftskrieg zu riskieren.

Jacqueline Gafner | Fr, 3. August 2018 - 15:33

Deutschland ist nicht der Nabel der Welt, für den es sich zuweilen zu halten scheint, sondern "nur" der einwohnerstärkste und wirtschaftlich (noch) potenteste Staat in Europa. Die Unfähigkeit oder der Unwillen, das Weltgeschehen mit andern als deutschen Augen zu betrachten, ist keine Qualität, sondern das Gegenteil davon. Wer nicht allein auf der Welt ist, sondern nolens volens mit andern zurechtkommen muss, und wer muss das nicht, kommt nicht darum herum, sich immer wieder auch deren Schuhe vorübergehend anzuziehen (zu suchen), auch und gerade dann, wenn er die eigenen Interessen bestmöglich wahren will, was nur auf der Grundlage einer realistischen Einschätzung der eigenen Position in einem grösseren Rahmen möglich ist. Klar gilt dies nicht nur für Deutschland, aber eben auch für Deutschland. Zeit, sich das klar zu machen, auch wenn's nicht gefällt.

Jan Steinmüller | Fr, 10. August 2018 - 12:42

Ich sehe Deutschland als außenpolitisch wenig ambitionierte Handelsmacht. Die Bevölkerung wünscht sich, aus dem Land eine "große Schweiz" zu machen und die Politik wünscht sich angesichts des Zustandes des Heeres und aufgrund des (scheinbar) eklatanten Mangels an Strategie und geopolitischer Expertise, aus allem Militärischen so weit es geht herausgehalten zu werden. Ich finde das gut. Lieber Handelsbarrieren abbauen und den Handel mit Afrika intensivieren, als Soldaten nach Mali schicken, Dschihadisten jagen. Andererseits können die Partner (Europa, USA, Israel) sich auf Deutschland im Ernstfall nicht verlassen. Das kann ebenfalls sehr unangenehme Konsequenzen nach sich ziehen und zu einem Abkühlen der so vitalen Beziehungen zwischen Deutschland und den anderen NATO-Staaten führen. Daher wird man versuchen, mit so wenig Engagement wie möglich so weit wie möglich zu kommen. Um ehrlich zu sein; alles andere ist kriegstreiberischer Wahnsinn. Zwei Weltkriege sind genug, Friedensmacht!