Post-Merkel Germany: New Beginning or New Reckoning?

Germany Merkel
Germany Merkel

Discussing America’s Options for Stronger Cooperation with Germany’s Newly Formed Government

By John Koenig, Stormy-Annika Mildner and Lennart Nientit. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.

US-German Relations – Patience, Realism, and a Human Agenda

By John Koenig – Former U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus & Chargé d’Affaires in Berlin, Germany

For decades, Americans have been the impatient side of the U.S.-German relationship: always the demander. More than ever, this needs to change. As we observe what could be a lengthy process to form a coalition government in Berlin, we should give the Germans space and moderate our expectations. We must listen more to what Germany wants.

Germany is the European Union’s largest member state and by far its largest economy. In assessing Germany’s intent and ability to wield influence, however, realism is in order. The new chancellor is unlikely to have the gravitas and sway of Angela Merkel, especially early on, and a three-party coalition with a narrow governing majority will create more domestic political uncertainty than in the past. The European Union, Germany’s preferred vehicle for foreign policy engagement, is at the same time passing through a period of diminished internal cohesion, with declining relevance in some key areas and clear division in others.

Much commentary focusing on the way ahead in U.S.-German relations, especially on this side of the Atlantic, centers on Russia and China. Observers note that members of Germany’s Green Party and the Free Democratic Party take a tougher line on Russia and China than do the Social Democrats or Christian Democrats. But, it is far from clear that this will push a new German government closer to the U.S. on the matter of “strategic competition”.

The Mirage of Strategic Unity with Germany

American discussion of security issues involving Germany is often warped by the expectation that Washington and Berlin should strive toward a shared strategic assessment. This has some merit. The United States underwrites Europe’s defense through NATO. It is right for Americans to alert transatlantic partners to threats that may be underappreciated or even unknown. Attitudes shift in Germany, as they have in other countries; the German public has become more critical and cautious of China over the past five years, for example, as have citizens in Europe, North America, and elsewhere. NATO is about to embark on developing a new Strategic Concept, a useful exercise that is long overdue, with a new emphasis on Russia and China, as well as new concerns like cybersecurity. There is room for closer cooperation between the U.S. and Germany (and the E.U.) on a range of matters pertaining to Russia and China, from regional conflicts and human rights to cyber threats and emerging technologies.

Overall, however, this drive toward a common strategic assessment or “threat perception” with Germany and other transatlantic partners is a recipe for disappointment. The divergence in values, perceptions, and interests between America and its erstwhile Cold War allies has progressed beyond the point of no return. The rise of China and other powers has contributed to this development. A new appreciation for more diffuse, multipolar relations is needed, one in which the differences of interest between America and its European partners are more forthrightly accepted and addressed.

There is value in multipolarity, even for the United States. It may be useful, for example, that Germans and other Europeans are much more resistant than Americans to a new Cold War — let alone a shooting war — with China. (I think it is very useful.) Likewise, with regard to Russia, differences within Europe limit — for the most part legitimately — the E.U.’s level of ambition and the prospects for closer transatlantic cooperation. Over time, multipolarity will hopefully enable the United States to relinquish its role as guarantor of Europe’s security.

While multipolarity is partly a result of the rise of other nations, it is also the result of profound and chronic problems in the U.S. Despite a surge of bipartisan alarm(ism) over China, overcoming deep social, political, and policy divisions within the U.S. looms as a far more pressing challenge than forging a common perception of external threats. Invocation of renewed “American leadership” to advance “strategic competition” with China and Russia and smite “authoritarians” rings hollow across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge of divergent interests, mistrust, and dysfunction that has arisen over the past decade.

Moving Forward by Taking a Step Back

Even without a common threat perception, the alliance with Germany greatly benefits the United States. We still share a broad range of vital interests, including an interest in European stability. Too often, Washington has sought to exploit intra-E.U. differences in order to advance narrow and short-term (and sometimes worse, e.g., Iraq) priorities. Nord Stream 2 belongs in this category. It unavoidably divided Europeans against each other; it made no sense for the U.S. to amplify the discord rather than calm it. America’s diplomacy, however well intentioned, has too often been corrosive of our long-term interests in European stability.

The U.S.-German relationship can deliver more than stability for the citizens on both sides. If Washington wants to preserve the enduring quality of the alliance and contain the trend toward transactionalism, it might do better by setting priorities for relations with Berlin that align more clearly with those of Germany and its E.U. partners — and, I would argue, with America’s own fundamental national interests. Climate change, first and foremost. Pandemic disease. Disruptive technologies. Global imbalances. These are the global priorities that are enrobed in lofty rhetoric at G-7 and G-20 summits and the U.N., and then largely set aside for narrower and more “immediate” priorities. The United States and Germany should lift these existential challenges to the top of our bilateral and multilateral agendas.

At the transatlantic level, there might still be value in a broad effort between the U.S. and the E.U. to set international standards for manufacturing, investment, and commerce, drawing on the compelling logic that led Chancellor Merkel to advocate strongly on behalf of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as a means to address the China challenge. Indeed, a forward-looking agenda to advance standards of data privacy, transparency, sustainability, human and labor rights, and other positive principles could be the most effective way to enlist Germany and many others to face the challenges that China, in particular, presents. The nascent U.S.-E.U. Trade and Technology Council (TTC) could potentially evolve in this direction.

In sum, the best formula for energizing U.S.-German relations may be to de-emphasize our threadbare “transatlantic values”, check our impulse to frontally contain China and Russia, and focus instead on the very concrete, compelling interests that unite us as citizens with real social, economic, and existential concerns.  Initiatives like the TTC, the global minimum tax, and the “Methane Pledge” could show the way. Such an approach may appeal in particular to the “traffic light” coalition of Social Democrats, Greens, and Free Democrats under Olaf Scholz that appears to be taking shape. A human agenda that fosters hope, that is more open, less value-laden, and more value-oriented could give new life to our venerable but vulnerable alliance.

Renewed German-US Relations are Essential to the Western World’s Future

By Stormy-Annika Mildner – Managing Director, Aspen Institute Germany, in collaboration with Lennart Nientit

Strained Relations in the Trump Era

Germany and the United States are deeply connected through a centuries-long common history, through shared values and interests, robust economic ties, and countless shared personal experiences. While the relationship certainly always had its ups and downs, the four years under former U.S. President Donald Trump were particularly rocky. With an eye on Germany’s large trade surplus, Trump accused the country of unfair trade practices. New trade conflicts emerged — such as new U.S. national security tariffs on steel and aluminum — and old ones escalated — such as the Airbus-Boeing dispute. Further conflictual issues were Germany’s defense spending, which is far away from NATO’s two percent of GDP goal, and the pipeline Nord Stream 2. How Germany dealt with China was another point of contention. Needless to say, the transatlantic relationship lost a lot of trust and understanding.

Hopes were thus high that the election of Joe Biden would mark a turning point in the relationship. At the same time, some skepticism remained. According to a survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) from January 2021, a majority of Europeans were happy about the election victory, but 32 percent said they could no longer trust Americans after the four years of President Trump. Almost ten months after Joe Biden took office, we have a better understanding. Both sides have shown good faith and — at least temporarily — eased some conflicts. But others remain, and we face new uncertainties after the German federal elections. 

A Mixed Balance Sheet

A milestone was the E.U.-U.S. summit in mid-June 2021. One of the most significant outcomes of the meeting was that the E.U. and United States agreed on a compromise regarding the dispute over aviation subsidies. Germany and the U.S. also made progress on the topic of digitization and technology. For example, the transatlantic partners established the Trade and Technology Council (TTC). Climate and health also played an important role at the summit. The E.U. and U.S. achieved another breakthrough at the G20 Summit in late October 2021, when they reached an agreement on steel and aluminum, addressing both over-capacities on global markets as well as the carbon intensity of the two sectors. The negotiations on the arrangement are to be concluded in the next two years. Until then, the United States will suspend its 232 tariffs and the E.U. will adjourn its retaliatory tariffs.  

Germany and the United States also made some bilateral progress. In mid-July 2021, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Biden agreed on the Washington Declaration. Regarding China, they want to ensure that the major technological innovations of this century advance democratic governance. In addition, both sides set up a Climate and Energy Partnership as well as a U.S.-German Economic Dialogue and a U.S.-German Futures Forum. Both partners also made some progress regarding Nord Stream 2. The White House softened its opposition to the project, not implementing sanctions against European companies. Germany promised to support sanctions against Russia if it misuses the pipeline as a means of exerting pressure on Ukraine.

But some conflicts remained. The hasty withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan and the subsequent disastrous evacuation mission have not helped to improve the mutual trust between the partners. In addition, AUKUS, the alliance between the United Kingdom, Australia, and the United States, to the exclusion of France, led to some irritation in Germany.  

Germany after the Elections

After World War II, close relations between the Federal Republic and the United States became a constituent pillar of Germany’s foreign and security policy. This will also be the case for the new government — the most probable coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), The Bündnis90/The Greens, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). 

Olaf Scholz, a leader of the SPD and the newly-appointed Chancellor of Germany, has repeatedly underlined the importance of the transatlantic alliance and asked for a new partnership on eye-level. This conviction is, however, not shared by everybody in his party. Nord Stream 2 finds more support among the SPD than in other parties. Annalena Baerbock, the Green’s former chancellor candidate, and her co-party leader Robert Habeck wrote in January 2021: “After wasted years of disruption, unwinding, and geopolitical self-deprecation, we […] have a shared opportunity to forge a new democratic social contract: a new environmental, economic, and social agenda.” Baerbock has been very critical of Nord Stream 2. But the Greens are not so keen on increasing defense spending. The FDP is traditionally very transatlantic-minded. The party is calling for the creation of a new transatlantic economic area.

China and Russia: Will Germany be Able to Deliver?

The next German government will likely take a tougher stance on China. Over the last few years, risk perceptions regarding China have changed in Germany. Hardly anybody believes in the mantra of ‘change through trade’ anymore. The SPD has argued for a while that China was a competitor and systemic rival. The Green Party is closely connecting economics and trade with sustainability and human rights issues. The FDP regards China as a systemic rival and stresses the importance of compliance with international regulations, such as fair market access according to the rules of the World Trade Organization. 

Nonetheless, Germany may find it difficult to fully meet U.S. expectations on a pivotal change in the country’s China policy. China has been Germany’s most important trading partner in trade in goods for years. Germany does not have any interest in an escalating trade conflict. An intensification of the conflict in the Indo-Pacific is also opposed to Germany’s trade and economic interests. Germany supports the international community in its security efforts in the Indo-Pacific, for example by sending its most advanced frigate, the Bayern. However, this support is more symbolic in nature. In the event of an actual conflict, both Germany’s willingness and ability to engage militarily in the region would be limited. 

The relationship with Russia is also characterized by ambivalence. As the Munich Security Conference’s Security Index 2021 shows, the perceived threat to security in Germany from Russia has increased in recent years. This is partly due to the annexation of Crimea and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine. There are also long-standing security concerns about Russia from Germany’s eastern neighbors. However, Germany is dependent on Russian gas supplies for its energy security. Since Nord Stream 2 is also controversial in Germany, it remains to be seen how the new German government will deal with the pipeline.


None of the major geopolitical challenges the Western world is facing, whether trade, economic, or security policy, can be solved without Germany’s contribution. This results in a great responsibility and the necessity for Germany to clearly formulate its strategic goals and to communicate them with its partners. However, the country often does not feel comfortable in this role, particularly when it comes to security and defense issues. Germany needs to lead but would often prefer to be in the second row of world politics. It thus remains to be seen if the new government will be willing to take on a more active role internationally. 

This article is part of Divided We Fall’s “Civility Without Borders” series, covering a range of topics fundamental to U.S. foreign policy. Through this series, we ask scholars, journalists, government officials, and activists to discuss the most pressing issues in international affairs. If you want to read more pieces like this, click here.

John Koenig Headshot
John Koenig
Diplomat; Former Chargé d’Affaires in Berlin

John M. Koenig has taught at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies since 2017. An American diplomat for more than thirty years, Koenig was Ambassador to Cyprus from 2012 to 2015. From 2006 to 2009, he was Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge d’Affaires in Berlin, working to reinvigorate strategic ties with Germany and Europe.  Decades earlier, Koenig had been a Political Officer at the American embassy in East Germany.  He was Deputy U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO in Brussels from 2003 to 2006, and, from 2009 to 2012, Political Advisor to NATO Joint Forces Command Naples.  

Stormy Annika Mildner Headshot 3335534076 1638915765939
Stormy-Annika Mildner
Managing Director, Aspen Institute Germany in Berlin (Germany) | Website

Since January 2021, Dr. Stormy-Annika Mildner (M.Sc.) has been Managing Director of the Aspen Institute Germany in Berlin. As an adjunct professor, she teaches courses on political economy at the Hertie School of Governance. From 2014 to 2020, she was head of the "Foreign Economic Policy" department at the Federation of German Industries (BDI) and until December 2013, she was a member of the Executive Board of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Before joining the SWP, she worked for the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), where she led the "Globalization and the World Economy" program (2000-2002). From 2005 to 2006, Ms. Mildner was a lecturer at the John F. Kennedy Institute at Freie Universität Berlin.

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