The Long-Term Impact of the U.S. Elections on the German-American Relationship

Peter Sparding

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

Peter Sparding is a transatlantic fellow in GMF’s Europe Program in Washington, DC, where he works on issues related to the transatlantic and global economy. In particular, Mr. Sparding’s work focuses on the consequences of the Eurozone crisis on the transatlantic economic relationship and the global economy. He also works on issues related to transatlantic trade and global economic governance. A native of Germany, Sparding previously worked in GMF’s Berlin office. He holds a master’s degree from Free University in Berlin and has also studied at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

He is a 2016-2017 participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).

The U.S. election is over, but with regard to the future of German-American cooperation, it has provided more questions than answers. German policymakers, like their counterparts around the world, are left wondering: What will Donald Trump’s victory mean for America’s role in the world, for NATO, for trade policy, or for climate change negotiations? Until the president-elect takes office and maybe even beyond that, all of these questions and others can only be tentatively answered. However, there is one certainty that the outcome of the election has delivered: the German public perception of the U.S. has been decisively altered—and likely for a very long time.

For sure, the German-American relationship, and America’s image in Germany with it, has undergone tumultuous times over the past decades. Not very long ago, in the run-up to and during the Iraq war, favorable perceptions of the U.S. plummeted in Germany and seen from Washington, Germany had become part of a less useful “Old Europe.” While a significant effort was undertaken to repair and improve government-to-government relations between the disagreeing transatlantic partners during George W. Bush’s second term, German public sentiment toward the U.S. did not fully recover until the election of 2008.

Already as a candidate, Barack Obama drew a massive crowd at a public speech in Berlin, clearly signaling the preference of the German public for the young and charismatic candidate. When Obama finally won the presidency, favorability rankings for the U.S. recovered quickly, while the personal approval ratings of the new president were almost irrationally high. To many Germans Obama’s election was proof that no matter what developments may take place, America would in the end “self-correct” and “do the right thing.”

This year’s presidential election campaign and its unexpected result may have shattered this belief for many Germans. In a public opinion poll for ARD following the election, only 20 percent of German respondents said the U.S. was now a trustworthy partner for Germany, a drop of nearly 40 points within a week. Similarly, a majority of respondents (57 percent) was now expecting German-American relations to get worse in the future. Such numbers give a first indication of a quick and immediate change in perceptions toward the U.S. going forward. While these instant figures mostly indicate disappointment, shock, and worry, it seems likely that to those Germans already predisposed to them, the election of Donald Trump will “confirm” many negative stereotypes about the U.S. As a consequence, we may witness a resurgence of anti-Americanism in Germany in the future, although it is for now still too early to tell.

As mentioned, fluctuations in the German public’s perception of the U.S. are not new and sharp declines have been witnessed before. The last time this happened, it took a historical event—the election of Barack Obama—to turn around negative views. From today’s vantage point, however, it is hard to imagine what it would take to reverse the current downward trend. America’s image in Germany may in fact be altered for a long time to come.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.