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Understanding and overcoming US-German divergence is key

At the peak of U.S.-European discord in the early 2000s, Robert Kagan famously claimed “it is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.” In the face of security dilemmas on Europe’s East and South over a decade later, some political leaders in the U.S. and Europe are resigning Kagan’s assertion to the past. Europe is now becoming the partner the U.S. wants.

Particularly at the high-political level, the U.S.-European relationship has improved considerably since the 2000s. Europe more willingly participates in its own security, even if at times begrudgingly so, and has been determined in its sanctions response against Russia and contribution to the U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq.

{mosads}But, relationships are always fluid. When looking at the long-term picture, it is important to recognize the potential for divergence today. Momentary crises pass, yet the fallout can linger long after. Europe may continue becoming more of the partner that the U.S. has wanted in many ways, but the path to this transformation has and will always be rocky, slow-going, and far from certain, while varying across national contexts.

Recently, differences over security and privacy policies show that the status quo is fragile. These tensions have particularly manifested in U.S.-German relations where a widespread mistrust of the U.S. exists within the German population. According to a Pew Research Center poll in May of 2015, only 13 percent of Germans see the U.S. as a ‘very reliable’ ally, while 31 percent of Germans found the U.S. not reliable at all. Another survey from Pew in June demonstrated that only 50 percent of Germans have a favorable view of the U.S., which was roughly 18 percent below the average of 6 other major European powers (Italy, Poland, France, the UK, Spain, and Germany).

Given the unity in the sanctions policy against Russia and support of the anti-ISIS coalition, it is clear that what unites the transatlantic partners today is greater than what divides them. And despite tensions, German leadership has been a significant component of this, leading the way on sanctions, as well as training and arming the Peshmerga in the anti-ISIS campaign. But, these sentiments within the German population will eventually undoubtedly impact political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic.

The transatlantic relationship is not static, but evolving. To use Kagan’s metaphor, perhaps Germany and the U.S. are not distant planets, but objects that are much more interdependent while also being unique – like a planet and moon. They have a shared history, interests, and values. But the most tumultuous deviation occurs in the means and policy preference, not in the ends. And this is a byproduct of unique national experiences.

For Germany, its criticism of Washington is largely driven by public perception and has consistently been about U.S. policy tactics. More often than not, the goals and perceived threats have been aligned, though the means to reach these outcomes have differed greatly. This is also not a new phenomenon.

The Pershing II debates of the ‘80s were not truly about whether the Soviet Union’s decision to deploy SS-20s was a threat to West Germany and Europe. Rather, they were about whether the adequate response was NATO deploying its own mid-range nuclear weapons in Europe. Differences of opinion created an enormous public backlash.

Staunch German opposition to the U.S. actions in Iraq was not because Germany did not see Iraq or Saddam Hussein as a threat, but rather a criticism of how the U.S. went about addressing it – going to war in Iraq. In fact, a Pew survey in 2002 showed that 82 percent of Germans considered Iraq a danger and 75 percent wanted Saddam Hussein removed, however 71 percent opposed the use of force to do so. This wasn’t a disagreement about the problems posed by the Iraqi dictatorship; it was the chasm of diverging opinion on how to get there and the urgency of action.

Threat primacy matters. Tactics matter and the prioritization of policy options matter. Divergence on these can lead to significant rifts. For today, this should underscore the idea that Germany and the U.S. might not be “on the same planet.” They are not carbon copies of one another and real differences can emerge.

The potential for future divergence is highlighted in another poll by the Pew Research Center on the ongoing conflict in Europe’s East. The poll found that 77 percent of the German public opposes a policy to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, while President Obama receives more pressure from Congress and others in the Executive to do so. The same poll found that even if Russia were to attack a NATO member country, only 38 percent of Germans support using military force to defend a NATO ally. However, at the same time, nearly half of Germans believe that Russia is a threat to its neighboring countries, aside from Ukraine. Given the forward leaning NATO reassurance policies announced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on his recent visit to Europe, divisions within the public could grow.

The transatlantic partners should not turn every disagreement into panic. Today, Kagan’s argument may seem too general, but not entirely off the mark. And understanding differences can help partners to overcome divergences that arise. But this may not stop differences from occurring. Secretary Carter reemphasized this on the recent trip, stating “differences between friends are natural; we must remember that our relationship is always rooted in shared interests, shared values, and our common security.” For the U.S., this is critical as Germany takes a greater leadership role in Europe in the face of an ever-evolving theater of security threats. To deftly and jointly react to future challenges, transatlantic allies must get ahead of these fissures to prevent tensions from spreading throughout publics and cementing in national psyches. By doing so, the transatlantic allies will be able to continue to forge an ever-stronger partnership, which as German Chancellor Angela Merkel commented, “…for Germany and for Europe is indispensable.”

Kell is a program officer for foreign and Security Policy at the German Marshall Fund.


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