One of the great successes of American diplomacy has been the transformation of Germany from one of our greatest enemies to one of our closest allies. That success was crowned thirty years ago when the United States helped Germany achieve the peaceful reunification of their divided country.
Germany and America have become indispensable partners. Our societies remain closely tied to one another culturally, politically and economically. Our economy forms the heart of a $ 5.6 trillion transatlantic commercial relationship employing more than 15 million people. Our two countries are at the heart of our alliance through NATO, our partnership with the European Union, and efforts to build a Europe which, in the words of former President George HW Bush, can truly be “whole and free”. When we agree, the German-American partnership has often been a driving force behind international efforts to tackle global challenges. If we disagree, we often become brakes for such efforts.
Thirty years later, the German-American partnership went through a period of transformation and redefinition that was likely to have major implications for both sides of the Atlantic.
First, the societal foundations of our partnership are shifting. Americans as a whole have a fairly positive view of Germany, but they pay little attention to German domestic dynamics and are confused by the complexities of the European Union. Many Germans, in turn, have little connection or understanding of the new community active in US domestic and foreign policy debates. They are regularly struck by the twists and turns of American society. Generational divisions are also visible. Many older Germans identified with America, which contained Soviet power, ensured German security, promoted European reconciliation and integration, and served as stewards of Germany’s peaceful unification. Many young Germans have another association: the Iraq War, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, NSA surveillance, greedy capitalism, rampant gun violence, withdrawal from international commitments, suppression of migration, and endemic racial injustice.
The consequence is that Americans expect more from a united Germany at a time when Germans expect less from America. The biggest transatlantic deficit we face today is not an imbalance of trade, digital divisions or military capability, but disparities in sentiment, concern, hope and trust.
This social dislocation was magnified by the changing role that our respective countries played in Europe. Germany, historically a source of anxiety, gradually became a source of assurance, while the United States, which had traditionally been a source of assurance, suddenly became a source of anxiety.
Germany, a country that was once the epitome of European division, is once again at the heart of a continent undergoing extraordinary changes. Even before the arrival of COVID-19, Germany’s role was significant. It has been ranked the world’s most admired country in the last three Gallup annual polls. Its continental influence has been strengthened by the British decision to leave the European Union. Its economy continues to boost European prospects. Its response to the coronavirus is faster and safer, and recovery is likely faster, than most of its neighbors.
Historically, Germany’s heavy burdens have radiated uncertainty. Today, the challenge of bending German history is to use its centrality to generate confidence for Germans and their neighbors. Berlin’s decision this year to overcome its strong aversion to budget deficits to help less fortunate European partners help save the continent from a potential historic collapse. Yet many Germans are preoccupied with self-doubt and uncomfortable with the potential costs and consequences of this important role.
In the past, the United States assured both Germany and its neighbors of Germany’s increasing weight. Today, however, Washington is a source of discomfort. America is moving away from its traditional role as a European power, comprehensively involved in the continent, supporting its allies and committed to tackling common challenges. It only becomes a power in Europe, engaged selectively, more destructively than stakeholders, more focused shed the burden rather than sharing it.
This transformation has brought German-American relations to a seven-decade low, just as sharper global competition demands more, not less, from Europe and America.
Thirty years after Germany’s peaceful unification, Germans and Americans can both be proud of our common achievements. But we cannot be complacent. The window closes on our ability to make our partnerships as transformative for the future as they have been in the past. The human foundation of our relationship needs to be cared for. We cannot allow a Europe that could be truly intact and free to return to a continent that is yet again fractured and restless. And each of us has an interest in turning our attention to global challenges that will not be mastered by us alone.
Unfortunately, it remains an open question whether Americans can muster the patience, and desire of the Germans, to rediscover their partnership for this uncertain new era. The elections held by our respective countries in the coming year will tell the story.
Daniel S. Hamilton is a Distinguished Fellow of the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation and Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center Global European Program.