German-US alliance ‘on life support’ after four years of Trump

Back in 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel greeted Donald Trump's victory with an extraordinary warning: that she would work with the US president on the condition that he respect democratic values. Things did not improve from there.

German-US alliance 'on life support' after four years of Trump
Photo: DPA

Four years later, Trump's abrasive foreign policy moves, often unveiled in all-caps tweets, have alienated not just Germany but much of Europe.

“The transatlantic relationship is practically on life support,” said Sudha David-Wilp, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Even if Democratic challenger Joe Biden wins the November 3rd election, experts said there will be no magical healing of the EU-US rift.

READ ALSO: German-US relations after a year of Trump: what has changed?

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center found that America's image among Europeans has plummeted to record lows, with just 26 percent of Germans now holding a favourable view of the superpower.

The “harsh judgement” can be partly attributed to the widespread belief that the Trump administration “mishandled the coronavirus”, said Bruce Stokes, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a British think-tank.

“Europeans look at America and think there are a lot of domestic issues that are just breaking the country apart and how can it be a good partner (at such a time)?” added David-Wilp.

'A foe'

From pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal to slapping tariffs on EU steel and aluminium, and defanging the World Trade Organization, Trump has dealt blow after blow to multilateralism, a much-valued European approach to global challenges.

He stunned allies by describing the European Union as a foe on trade, and “scared people” by cosying up to Russia, Stokes said.

Germany, which currently holds the EU presidency, has been a regular target of Trump's anger, often over its failure to meet NATO's defence spending targets.

But on a personal level too, there is no love lost between Europe's most powerful woman, who is leaving office next year, and the real estate tycoon in the White House.

Unlike French President Emmanuel Macron who tried to woo Trump with a military parade and a dazzling Eiffel Tower dinner before ties soured, Merkel never went out of her way to court the mercurial American.

Relations turned even frostier in June after she rebuffed an invite for a G7 event in Washington over coronavirus concerns. Soon after, Trump announced he was slashing the number of US troops stationed in Germany.

“He has real trouble dealing with strong women,” Stokes said.

Yet Trump does not just have an aversion to the Chancellor, “but probably also to Germany,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “Even he himself probably does not know where this is rooted.”

But Trump has made some friends on the continent. Hungarian premier Viktor Orban, who shares his anti-immigrant sentiment, is openly backing him for reelection.

Poland, which stands to benefit from Trump's troop reshuffle, has experienced “a US re-engagement” and shares Washington's opposition to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, said Justyna Gotkowska from the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).

If Biden wins

Biden and Trump meeting in February 2013 during one of then President Obama's visits to Berlin. Photo: DPA

Should Biden win, he ” will see the need to revitalise relationships with allies,” said David-Wilp.

Expect the former vice president to make a trip to Europe early on, rejoin the climate pact and restart nuclear talks with Iran, experts say.

But areas of friction will remain on military spending, Nord Stream 2, and Washington's campaign against Chinese tech giant Huawei.

In the dispute over German defense spending, Trump announced the withdrawal of around a third of the U.S. soldiers stationed in Germany.

A Biden spokesman called this “a gift for (president) Vladimir Putin” and announced that Biden would “review” the decision after an election victory.

Faced with a Covid-19 battered economy, Biden will probably eschew Trump's more protectionist tendencies but some sort of “America First” vision for sensitive industries will likely live on.

“Europeans have to understand that a Biden administration is going to be so domestically preoccupied,” said Stokes.

The career politician is therefore expected to surround himself with seasoned foreign policy officials who will “even more than normally” be relied upon “to pull things back together, but hopefully also chart a new course” with Brussels, he added.

Should Trump be reelected, expect “a great sucking in of breath” across European capitals, Stokes said, and “another four years of a very rocky ride”.

READ ALSO: Inside the German town with Trump family ties and what it really thinks of him

But even under Trump 2.0, it is “entirely possible” for the US and EU to form a united front when it's in their self-interest on issues such as the coronavirus or China policy, Stokes said.

Peter Beyer, Merkel's transatlantic coordinator, recently told AFP that a “new Cold War” between Washington and Beijing had already begun, and that Europe should “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with the US to face a rising China.


An unintended side effect of the Trump turbulence has been the growing realisation that Europe must speak and act more as one.

“Trump definitely jolted things,” said David-Wilp.

The bloc's successful negotiation of a huge coronavirus stimulus package, spearheaded by Merkel and Macron, suggests a new impetus for closer cooperation and a reinvigorated German-Franco partnership.

Trump's attacks painting Europeans as taking advantage of the US have spurred higher NATO contributions, and a greater acceptance of burden-sharing on security issues.

There are plenty of obstacles ahead for the 27-member club with its disparate interests, not least the impending Brexit turmoil and elections looming in key member states.

“But if one wants to say the glass is half-full, the Trump presidency may have helped accelerate European unity,” Stokes said.

Member comments

  1. So, twice in the last 100 years the US has “overlooked” Germany’s starting of the two biggest wars in history. We paid in lives; we paid in billions (probably trillions of 2020 dollars) of dollars and deutschmarks. Yet now you’re so fragile that 4 years of Donald Trump have ruined the relationship forever? I have no words.

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Sleep, seaside, potato soup: What will Merkel do next?

 After 16 years in charge of Europe's biggest economy, the first thing Angela Merkel wants to do when she retires from politics is take "a little nap". But what about after that?

Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes and smiles at a 2018 press conference in Berlin.
Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefly closes her eyes at a 2018 press conference in Berlin. Aside from plans to take "a little nap" after retiring this week, she hasn't given much away about what she might do next. Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP

The veteran chancellor has been tight-lipped about what she will do after handing over the reins to her successor Olaf Scholz on December 8th.

During her four terms in office, 67-year-old Merkel was often described as the most powerful woman in the world — but she hinted recently that she will not miss being in charge.

“I will understand very quickly that all this is now someone else’s responsibility. And I think I’m going to like that situation a lot,” she said during a trip to Washington this summer.

Famous for her stamina and her ability to remain fresh after all-night meetings, Merkel once said she can store sleep like a camel stores water.

But when asked about her retirement in Washington, she replied: “Maybe I’ll try to read something, then my eyes will start to close because I’m tired, so I’ll take a little nap, and then we’ll see where I show up.”

READ ALSO: ‘Eternal’ chancellor: Germany’s Merkel to hand over power
READ ALSO: The Merkel-Raute: How a hand gesture became a brand

‘See what happens’
First elected as an MP in 1990, just after German reunification, Merkel recently suggested she had never had time to stop and reflect on what else she might like to do.

“I have never had a normal working day and… I have naturally stopped asking myself what interests me most outside politics,” she told an audience during a joint interview with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

“As I have reached the age of 67, I don’t have an infinite amount of time left. This means that I want to think carefully about what I want to do in the next phase of my life,” she said.

“Do I want to write, do I want to speak, do I want to go hiking, do I want to stay at home, do I want to see the world? I’ve decided to just do nothing to begin with and see what happens.”

Merkel’s predecessors have not stayed quiet for long. Helmut Schmidt, who left the chancellery in 1982, became co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a popular commentator on political life.

Helmut Kohl set up his own consultancy firm and Gerhard Schroeder became a lobbyist, taking a controversial position as chairman of the board of the Russian oil giant Rosneft.

German writer David Safier has imagined a more eccentric future for Merkel, penning a crime novel called Miss Merkel: Mord in der Uckermark  that sees her tempted out of retirement to investigate a mysterious murder.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her trademark hand gesture, the so-called “Merkel-Raute” (known in English as the Merkel rhombus, Merkel diamond or Triangle of Power). (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Planting vegetables
Merkel may wish to spend more time with her husband Joachim Sauer in Hohenwalde, near Templin in the former East Germany where she grew up, and where she has a holiday home that she retreats to when she’s weary.

Among the leisure activities she may undertake there is vegetable, and especially, potato planting, something that she once told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2013 that she enjoyed doing.

She is also known to be a fan of the volcanic island of D’Ischia, especially the remote seaside village of Sant’Angelo.

Merkel was captured on a smartphone video this week browsing the footwear in a Berlin sportswear store, leading to speculation that she may be planning something active.

Or the former scientist could embark on a speaking tour of the countless universities from Seoul to Tel Aviv that have awarded her honorary doctorates.

Merkel is set to receive a monthly pension of around 15,000 euros ($16,900) in her retirement, according to a calculation by the German Taxpayers’ Association.

But she has never been one for lavish spending, living in a fourth-floor apartment in Berlin and often doing her own grocery shopping.

In 2014, she even took Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to her favourite supermarket in Berlin after a bilateral meeting.

So perhaps she will simply spend some quiet nights in sipping her beloved white wine and whipping up the dish she once declared as her favourite, a “really good potato soup”.