The German-American Relationship: What’s In It for the U.S.?

Steve Szabo

Stephen F. Szabo

Senior Fellow

Dr. Stephen F. Szabo is a Senior Fellow at AICGS, where he focuses on German foreign and security policies and the new German role in Europe and beyond. Until June 1, he was the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy, a Washington, DC, based forum for research and dialogue between scholars, policy experts, and authors from both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to joining the German Marshall Fund in 2007, Dr. Szabo was Interim Dean and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and taught European Studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He served as Professor of National Security Affairs at the National War College, National Defense University (1982-1990). He received his PhD in Political Science from Georgetown University and has been a fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the American Academy in Berlin, as well as serving as Research Director at AICGS. In addition to SAIS, he has taught at the Hertie School of Governance, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Virginia. He has published widely on European and German politics and foreign policies, including. The Successor Generation: International Perspectives of Postwar Europeans, The Diplomacy of German Unification, Parting Ways: The Crisis in the German-American Relationship, and Germany, Russia and the Rise of Geo-Economics.

The German-American relationship has gone from Bush 41’s call for a Partnership in Leadership to Trump’s view of Germany as one of America’s adversaries.  His National Security Advisor and top economic advisor recently explained the Trump administration’s view of foreign policy: as one in which, “[T]he world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”

In this self-described hard-headed administration which clearly feels more comfortable with authoritarian regimes than with democracies like Germany, what case can be made for the continued importance of a relationship which has been central to the United States since at least 1947?

If it is “economics, stupid,” then start with the over 700,000 good jobs German companies have created in the U.S., most in Trump’s red states like South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee as well as an investment in the American economy of over $2.5 billion.  These jobs are not McDonald’s level jobs but well-paying ones that bring apprenticeships and training in skills. The Germans are doing what the American private sector has failed to do, the latter preferring to import foreign workers through the H1B visa waiver program than in training American workers. It should be added that China as well has not been creating jobs in the U.S. While the trade deficit with Germany has soared to $75 billion, the administration should focus on the current accounts imbalance and the need for Germany to spend more and lower its high savings rate. But it has to avoid overreacting by labeling Germany as one of its key enemies due to the trade surplus and losing sight of the broader benefits of the relationship.

On the hard security front, the U.S. has about 40,000 military personnel stationed in Germany.  These bases, which include both the key Ramstein air base and the Landstuhl medical facility, serve as key nodes in American military operations in the Middle East and cannot be easily replaced. An escalation of anti-German rhetoric could lead to the loss of these facilities.  In addition, Germany will be redeploying its air forces from Turkey to Jordan to contribute to operations in Syria and aid the Peshmerga in Iraq.  Given the administration’s focus on defeating ISIS, this German contribution to the war on terror should be kept in mind. In addition, Germany is beginning to address its need to increase its defense role with an 8 percent increase in its defense and is now providing a battalion in Lithuania to the new NATO Baltic force. It is also taking the lead in creating a more effective EU defense capability. It continues to share intelligence as part of a larger counter terrorism effort. To be sure, Germany should do more for its defense but public badgering from Washington makes this seem more a policy to placate the Trump administration than one which is in the German interest.

On Russia, Berlin is the key partner for Washington on any coherent strategy. It was Chancellor Merkel who put together the sanctions regime, which has just been reinforced by the U.S. Senate.  No American administration can have a successful Russia policy in Europe without Germany.

Finally on China, Germany has worked with the U.S. to keep a Western rule-based system from being undermined by Russia, China, and other authoritarian powers.  If the Trump administration really wants to limit Chinese influence and clout, it can’t afford to risk pushing Germany and the EU toward a Beijing which promises to support an open trading system and climate change. Washington can’t take the risk of a split West which China and Russia can use for their own ends.  Berlin and Washington share concerns about Chinese investment in critical industries and the theft of intellectual property and need to be able to work together in these critical areas.

All of this has been made more difficult by the undercutting of the values, what Germans call a Wertegemeinschaft, which have made the relationship more than one based on a stark version of  Realpolitik. It will be all the more difficult to persuade German leaders and their public that they should cooperate with a White House that opposes the core values of German democracy.  But that is another problem.  If cold realism is all that is listened to in this new Washington, then these are the arguments which should be considered.


Stephen F. Szabo is a Senior Fellow at AGI. 

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