Remapping German-American Relations

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.


Parke Nicholson

Parke Nicholson was previously the Senior Research Associate at AICGS. He was selected to participate in the Munich Young Leaders 2016 program at the 52nd Munich Security Conference. Previously, he worked at the Center for the National Interest and the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, he served on the foreign policy staff at Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign headquarters. He has also worked abroad in Austria and Germany: in 2005 through the Fulbright Program in Klagenfurt and in 2010-2011 as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow working in the German Foreign Office for the Coordinator of Transatlantic Cooperation and for Daimler AG’s Political Intelligence unit in Stuttgart.

Parke has recently published in Foreign Affairs, The National Interest, The Baltimore Sun, and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He received his MA in International Relations from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University and a BA in History and Violin Performance at The College of Wooster in Ohio.

In the course of 2013, German-American relations reached their lowest point since the beginning of the Iraq War a decade ago. Europeans have been outraged over the revelations concerning the NSA’s surveillance programs. There has also been lingering disagreement on a range of issues spanning economic, energy, and security policy. All of this has burdened the relationship.

The strategic partnership between the two countries is too vital for there to be sustained tension on so many issues of critical importance. Repairing the German-American dialogue will thus take extra effort during the coming year.  This requires an understanding of the domestic debates on foreign and domestic policy in each country. More importantly, it requires identifying those areas in which leadership is missing, inadequate, or simply contested.

German and American leaders need to understand the challenges they will face in the coming years, the choices available to them, the potential consequences of those choices, and draw conclusions from thorough analysis. Unfortunately, recent events make clear that neither Germany nor the United States have a clearly articulated road map of the challenges that confront both countries and few ready-made conclusions. As a result, they have been unable to formulate shared policy directions in many cases.

One important reason for this is the increased volatility of domestic political debates in Washington and in Berlin, which impact the parameters leaders in both capitals face in their policymaking processes. Second, there is a new generation of political actors on both sides of the Atlantic with often divergent approaches to the challenges. Lastly, the choices facing the global community are complex and place high demands on leaders’ limited time and energy.

Below is a brief review of the challenges and choices confronting leaders when addressing the German-American relationship. Much has changed since our map of the relationship in 2008.

Rebuilding Trust

The United States remains the only superpower with the stature to impose a global order, but has come to realize its limits in projecting power and marshalling the resources needed for it. The debate over the global role and responsibilities of the U.S. will be heightened during 2014 as the November Congressional elections approach.

Two long wars and continued turmoil in the Middle East and rising tensions in Asia have naturally diverted Washington’s gaze from Europe. It now expects Germany along with other allies to help meet global challenges and help preserve stability. Yet the interests and perspectives today look much different than in previous years.

While Germany has been clearly assuming more influence and responsibility in Europe, there have been serious policy disagreements with Washington over how best to orchestrate the economic recovery of the past few years. The United States has an enormous economic stake in a strong European economy, but has sometimes disagreed with Berlin’s prescription for getting there.

Washington perceives Berlin as lacking the will to articulate its own strategic vision. Disappointment over Germany’s decision regarding intervention in Libya, continuing lag in contributing to NATO defense resources and capabilities, and reticence toward the use of force in global conflicts remains part of the friction between the Atlantic allies.

Germany states that it remains a reliable partner in transatlantic relations. Yet it retains a deep reluctance to assert its own priorities and, even then, does so in language that could be considered too passive—at least to an American audience. The recent coalition agreement for the new government in Berlin is only the most recent example of this:

“Whenever contributions from our country are expected to help resolve crises and conflicts, we stand prepared. In doing so, we place a priority on the tools of diplomacy, peaceful conflict resolution and development cooperation. We are dependable and loyal to our alliances. We want to act as a good partner in the shaping of a just world order.”[1]

While the notion of German leadership may have been an uncomfortable concept for many, circumstances have changed rapidly since the Cold War impacted Germany’s policy challenges. But Berlin has yet to articulate a bold vision for the alliance, Europe, and Germany’s role in the world. Is Germany really prepared to meet the expectations of its allies? This questions needs to be addressed by the new government in Berlin.

From Germany’s perspective, the United States has been a less than trustworthy partner, especially in the wake of the revelations about the NSA’s surveillance programs. This episode is illustrative of long-term tensions between Washington and Berlin. Lingering policy disagreements have led some Germans to claim that their views are not taken seriously in Washington and the sometimes shrill public debate on issues ranging from military actions to climate change has led many in the German public to distrust U.S. motives.  The fact that President Barack Obama was so enormously popular following the Bush era helps explain the recent outcry of disappointment following Washington’s response to a range of issues including cyber espionage, closing Guantanamo, and drone strikes.

Challenges for a New Generation of Leaders

Both countries shared a close bond throughout the Cold War. Twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, both are now at risk of drifting apart. Maintaining this bond will be the principal challenge for a new generation of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

Many of today’s leaders, however, are less personally invested in or familiar with the relationship. The number of U.S. members of Congress who have served in the military and had experience in Germany has dwindled and many of the U.S. military bases in Germany that once were the nexus of German-American relations have been downsized or eliminated since the end of the Cold War. In Germany, the coalition government will include new faces with responsibility for transatlantic issues, but with less direct experience in the United States. In Washington, nearly all of the relevant national security positions have changed hands in the past year. New leaders see the shifts in power that are reshaping both Europe and the United States and are asking new questions about the relevance of German-American relations.

The United States will continue to be a natural partner for Germany. As President George H.W. Bush said before reunification, the countries are “partners in leadership” and thus have a shared responsibility to forge a world of peace and prosperity. President Obama echoed this message last summer in Berlin when he said that “our shared past shows that none of these challenges can be met unless we see ourselves as part of something bigger than our own experience.” Yet it is important that we not dwell on our past accomplishments, for we will then lose sight of the challenges and choices that will shape the future of the relationship. And it is also necessary to grasp that “leaders in partnership” are not always of one mind in formulating prescriptions for challenges even if there are shared goals involved.

The hard part now for Germany is to define its interests and the risks it is willing to accept to secure them. While some of those interests will diverge from the United States, most of our values and goals continue to overlap. There is now a need to define our respective agendas, pursue shared goals, and better manage our differences. Doing so will ensure that the U.S.-German partnership remains a cornerstone of transatlantic relations.

Below is a set of policy priorities that, if resolved, would strengthen trust, help both countries respond to a rapidly changing world, and leave a lasting legacy not only for German-American relations, but more broadly for the United States and Europe.

The Euro Crisis and the Future of Europe

The future vitality of Europe is essential to German-American relations. A worrying fixation on internal politics in Europe and the U.S. has left the future of the euro zone in doubt, which can only further undermine attempts at deeper integration.  Unfortunately, Washington and Berlin have squared off on a range of difficult questions on regulatory, monetary, and fiscal policy. This has led to different priorities in responding to the economic crisis in Europe (e.g., the austerity versus stimulus debate).

But these challenges should not overshadow the broader German-American economic partnership and the fact that it is one of the core trading relationships within the world’s largest trading bloc. If completed, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) would be a signature achievement for both President Obama and Chancellor Merkel, leading to more jobs and investment opportunities in Europe and the United States.

Key Questions for German and American Leaders:
  • What is the strategy for promoting TTIP and responding to its opponents?
  • What is the vision for Europe’s future?

Cyber Security and Privacy

The recent revelations concerning the National Security Agency’s programs has led to a loss of trust between Germany and the United States, but should not blind the two countries’ leaders from the broader challenges of the digital age. Consumers need assurance that their privacy will be respected; businesses need help protecting their intellectual property; and governments will continue to bear responsibility for protecting critical infrastructure and the safety of their citizens. Yet there are no clear international standards or norms on how to deal with the exponential increase of data online and the pace of technological change. Both Germany and the United States have a shared interest in establishing new rules of the road and maintaining an open and secure internet.

Key Question for German and American Leaders:
  • How are both countries working toward common standards on protecting consumer privacy, financial information, and intellectual property? While important and in the interest of both countries, these should not become sticking points in negotiations over TTIP.

The Energy Transformation and Climate Change

The U.S. and German energy markets have undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years. The U.S. strategy of developing North American energy resources such as shale gas has already put the country on a path toward self-sufficiency. Germany has shown leadership in addressing the problem of climate change and adopted a plan toward greater energy self-sufficiency, but may be forced to revise its plan to phase out all nuclear power production by 2022 due to rising energy costs. Both countries must deal with the challenges of climate change and reliable access to energy.

Key Question for German and American Leaders:
  • Both the Obama administration and Merkel’s new government are working to reshape their energy sectors. What more can be done to identify and support the exchange of new ideas and technologies?

NATO and International Security

The West has struggled to adopt a consistent approach to international crises. Washington’s leaders sometimes feel as if they are the sole defenders of the West’s global interests and expect Germany to accept more risk and devote more resources to the common defense. For its part, Germany sees itself as an active member of NATO and has spent a decade fighting alongside Americans in Afghanistan. It will continue to contribute its armed forces and development expertise to preserve continental as well as global stability. Too often, though, both tend to talk past each other rather than work together on security issues:

Key Questions for German and American Leaders:
    • Will Germany reevaluate its constitutional constraints and agree upon general principles to support certain missions without referring each matter to the Bundestag?
    • Can NATO members effectively pool their defense resources to meet today’s security threats as is called for by the recent “Smart Defense” initiative?

How will the lessons of Afghanistan inform the debate in Germany and its role in the international arena in the future?


The recent coalition agreement makes it clear that relations with Russia loom large in Berlin’s worldview. Trade, energy, and cultural ties are significant factors in the German-Russian relationship. Though Germany’s leaders will not always agree with the direction of U.S. policy, both clearly see the benefits and the challenges of bringing Russia closer to Europe. Unfortunately, Russian resistance to European policies in the postSoviet space have undermined its support in the West.

Key Question for German and American Leaders:
  • What opportunities exist for policy convergence between the U.S. and Germany on issues such as missile defense, the NATO-Russia Council, the Modernization Partnership, the Petersburg Dialogue, and a new partnership agreement with the European Union?

Middle East and Afghanistan

The U.S. and Germany have several shared interests in the Middle East. U.S. power in the region is perceived to be declining, but its active involvement remains critical. Germany is a major trading partner and arms exporter, but is also seen as a neutral player.

Key Questions for German and American Leaders:
  • In what ways can policy toward the conflict in Syria be better coordinated between the EU, Germany, and the United States?
  • How will each support a democratic transition in Egypt?
  • Can the E3+3 (also known as the P5+1) move beyond the interim agreement with Iran over its nuclear program?


The U.S. “pivot” to Asia raised concerns that the U.S. was turning away from Europe. While these concerns have been exaggerated, the question remains to what degree U.S. policy on China and Asia in general is coordinated with our European allies. European countries have fewer security commitments in East Asia than the United States, but equally strong business interests in the world’s largest market. Both are anxious about China’s domestic reforms and its “peaceful rise” in the region.

Key Questions for German and American Leaders:
  • As two of China’s largest trading partners, do the United States and Germany have a common view of the challenges and opportunities in that country?
  • In what ways can emerging powers like China appropriately be represented in international institutions and assume greater responsibility in resolving international conflict outside of its region?
  • Can elements of Europe’s experience with reconciliation between former enemies help defuse tensions in Northeast Asia?


The consequences of not establishing a bi-lateral agenda are significant. Without an agenda, the relationship will lack coherence. Policy decisions can be made without a grand strategy, but they lack staying power without a plan to win popular support. With an agenda, it will be easier for leaders to identify where Germany and the United States are interdependent. This is a first step toward expanding what has always been a prosperous partnership—a sum that is greater than its parts.

There is more at stake than just the German-American relationship. The recent fissures in the European project brought about by the financial crisis will take many years to resolve. In the past, the United States’ commitment to Europe was an essential catalyst for the region’s integration, expansion, and growth. Its continued involvement with the European Union depends in large part on its relations with Europe’s major countries including Germany, the symbol of a once divided Europe and a benefactor of its success.


What is the alternative to closer relations between Europe and the United States?

Americans recognize the need to maintain our partnerships. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that three-quarters of Americans opt for shared leadership with our allies. A “go it alone” attitude has never been a core part of America’s identity and, due to a new equation of power in the world, the United States is only one of many competing players. Thus, transatlantic relations remain as important as they have always been. And the German-American partnership is at its core.

No other region in the world can compare with the sheer volume of trade and investment as well as cultural, professional, and intellectual exchange that takes place across the Atlantic every day. We share not only a specific set of values, but also the commitment to preserve them. As we face our common demographic, economic, and political challenges, this physical and intellectual exchange will form the basis for the West’s own renewal. It is up to our leaders to take advantage of the opportunity.

[1] AGI translation of the Coalition Agreement. See “Verantwortung in der Welt” (Page 168). Available online:

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