America and Germany can reinvent critical alliance for brave new world
A critical success of United States diplomacy was the transformation of Germany from one of our greatest enemies into one of our closest allies. That success was crowned 30 years ago when the United States helped the Germans to achieve a peaceful unification of their country.
Americans and Germans have been indispensable partners. Our societies remain bound to each other in business and culture. Our economies form the core of more than $5 trillion in transatlantic commerce which employs over 15 million people. Our countries are the heart of our alliance with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, our relations with the European Union, and our numerous efforts to build a continent that, in the famous words of the first President George Bush, could be truly whole and free.
When we are on the same terms, the alliance between the United States and Germany is often a motor driving international efforts to tackle world challenges. When we are on different terms, we are often a brake to such efforts. Three decades on, however, the alliance is in an era of redefinition that will be significant for both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
The societal foundation of our alliance is shifting. While Americans have a positive view of Germans, they pay little attention on domestic dynamics and are mystified with the intricacies of Europe. Many Germans have little connection to, or understanding of, the new communities active in policy debates in the United States. They are often surprised by those twists and turns of the culture. Generational divisions are also evident.
Many older Germans identify with a United States that contained Soviet power, ensured their security, promoted reconciliation, and served as a steward for a peaceful unification in their country. Many young Germans harbor associations such as the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, government surveillance, rapacious capitalism, gun violence, withdrawal from world pledges, attacks on migration, and systemic racial injustice.
Americans have come to expect more from unified Germany for a time when Germans have come to expect less from the United States. Those greatest transatlantic deficits we face are not trade imbalances, digital divisions, or military actions. They are disparities in sentiment and trust. These dislocations are magnified by the role each of our countries play within Europe. Germany, a historic source of anxiety, is turning into the source of reassurance, while the United States, a traditional source of reassurance, has suddenly become the source of anxiety.
Germany, the country that once embodied divisions in Europe, is at the core of a continent in tremendous flux. Even before the coronavirus, the role of Germany had become significant, as it has been ranked the most admired country in the world in the last three annual polls by Gallup. Its clout has also been enhanced by the decision of Britain to abandon the European Union. Its economy continues to drive the financial prospects across the continent. Its coronavirus response has been swifter, and its recovery likely faster, than that of many other countries.
In the past, Germany would radiate uncertainty. Today, the task is to use its centrality to generate confidence for its citizens and other countries. The recent decision of Berlin to overcome its aversion to budget deficits to bail out its less fortunate partners helped to rescue the continent from a potentially historic meltdown. Yet many Germans have doubts and are uncomfortable with the potential costs of such a role.
In the past, the United States reassured Germany and other countries. Today, however, Washington is a source of unease. The United States is drifting away from its traditional role as a power in Europe, one that was broadly engaged with the continent, supportive of allies and committed to tackling challenges. It is turning into simply a presence in Europe, one that is selectively engaged, more spoiler than stakeholder, focused more with shedding burdens than sharing them. All such transformations have taken the alliance between the United States and Germany to the lowest tide in seven decades in the face of sharper competition.
Three decades after the peaceful unification of Germany, we can be proud of our achievements, but we cannot be content. The window is closing on our ability to make our alliance as transformative for the future as it was in the past. The human foundation of our alliance needs tending. We cannot allow a Europe that can be truly whole and free to revert to a region that is more anxious and fractured. We each have a vested interest in turning our attention to challenges that neither of us alone will master.
It is unclear whether Americans can muster the patience, and Germans the will, to reinvent their alliance for this chaotic new era. The elections each of our countries holds within the year will tell the tale.
Daniel Hamilton is the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation distinguished fellow and director of the Global Europe Program at the Wilson Center.