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Council Debate: The Future of U.S.-German Relations

Authors: Jeffrey Gedmin, and Ronald D. Asmus
July 2, 2003


Jeffrey Gedmin, the director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, and former Clinton State Department official Ronald D. Asmus, now the senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and an adjunct senior fellow in Europe Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, examine the troubled strategic relationship between Washington and Berlin.

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Jeffrey Gedmin:
There is wishful thinking in Washington these days about Germany. Republicans like to think it all would have been different, had only [Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union candidate] Edmund Stoiber been elected Germany’s chancellor last September. Democrats believe that President George W. Bush is the problem: Al Gore would have ended Saddam Hussein’s blood-soaked rule, too, but he would have “managed” the alliance and kept relations with Germany on an even keel. But, in fact, there is a structural problem in the German-American relationship.

In some areas, we are growing closer together. Take economic and trade relations. Yes, we fought about bananas. Today we argue about steel and GMOs [genetically modified organisms]. There’s protectionism on both sides. Competition is intense and cultural differences exist. But who could argue? The overall trend in commerce and culture continues to be one of transatlantic integration and interdependence. Germany’s export-driven economy is a leader in many ways.

The old security partnership is a different matter. Since the Cold War ended, Germans feel less dependent on the United States. Berlin’s foreign policy priorities are today largely regional: enlarging the European Union (EU), making the euro a success, adopting a European constitution, keeping the Balkans stable. There’s increasing prickliness across the political spectrum about American leadership and influence. Being “European” is in; being “transatlantic” is hardly chic, at least at the moment. There’s another reality: Germany’s capabilities are limited. It is a medium-sized country that spends meagerly on defense and faces serious economic challenges and a demographic crisis in the years ahead. If the United States needs coalitions of the willing and able, is Germany likely to be either?

No, this does not mean we are headed toward a full blown strategic divorce. The Germans help in peacekeeping in Afghanistan. [U.S. Attorney General] John Ashcroft and his counterpart, [Interior Minister] Otto Schily, cooperate closely in law enforcement. America still needs its European allies, and Germany matters. But when it comes to the heavy lifting, it is surely time to rethink the old alliances and soberly consider developments in a new Berlin.

Ronald Asmus:
Let’s step back a bit. First, after 1989, Germany moved further and faster in assuming new international responsibility than many expected, including a willingness to deploy military forces beyond its borders in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. It is not a pacifist country.

Second, the United States and Germany remained very much in strategic synch in the 1990s. [Then Chancellor] Helmut Kohl was [President] Bill Clinton’s closest political ally on the continent. Much of what we accomplished in Europe—for example, NATO enlargement—was possible only because of close U.S.-German strategic cooperation.

Third, this trajectory was initially continued by Gerhard Schroeder [the Social Democrat elected chancellor in 1998] and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer [the head of Germany’s Green Party]. I remember how surprised and proud we in the Clinton administration were to find that a Red-Green [Social Democrat-Green Party] coalition [government] was prepared to go to war with us in Kosovo to stop ethnic cleansing. I also note that Schroeder risked his political neck to support the United States in Afghanistan as well.

So what went wrong? Somewhere between Afghanistan and Baghdad, we lost each other. As you know, I supported the president on Iraq and criticized the chancellor—almost as much as you did. But let’s be honest. I don’t want to exonerate Berlin for its mistakes or lack of leadership. But Washington’s diplomatic performance was also a debacle. I do believe a President Al Gore backed by a Richard Holbrooke as secretary of State could have done much better.

The administration’s current approach toward Berlin is extremely short-sighted and counterproductive. Germany may be somewhat less central than in the past because the problems we face have changed. But we will never reorient the U.S.-European relationship to deal with what we both agree are the key problems of the future—for example, the Greater Middle East and elsewhere—unless we bring Berlin on board.

On your first point, you and I agree. German foreign and defense policies have evolved and on balance matured since the fall of the Berlin Wall 14 years ago.

But when I step back, there is something else I see. When the Cold War ended, Germany (and Europe for that matter) ceased being the center of gravity of America’s strategic universe. As you and I both know, what fires the imagination of our leading strategic thinkers today are projects like the coming unification of Korea, the challenge of China, stability on the subcontinent—and, of course, the future of the Middle East and the Gulf. In relative terms, Europe matters less. Apart from its interest in the Mideast peace process, Germany’s political class is not much taken by any of this. There is the thesis, of course, about Germany (and the EU) being America’s primary and indispensable partner for this global agenda. I like the idea. I increasingly doubt its viability, though.

But Germany, you say, was a key ally of the United States during the Clinton years. True, Germans played an important role in expanding NATO. It’s also true, however, that NATO enlargement was a regional project in which Germans could quickly grasp why exporting stability to their east would enhance their own security. In the post-9/11 world, Americans of both parties are tending toward a more strategically ambitious foreign policy. As you know, it is hard to find takers for such inclinations in Berlin. Germans are thinking first and foremost regionally. Their resources are modest. Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, spends on defense something comparable to what Luxembourg spends, as calculated as a percentage of GDP. Add to this the fact that Germans seem increasingly frustrated by the prospect of being Washington’s junior partner, and it’s hard to be sanguine about a robust partnership on global security.

Would a President Gore have saved us from alliance frictions over Iraq? I doubt it. I think much of this was pre-programmed. Meanwhile, today we have a problem. You and I want to move on and democratize the Middle East. The Germans have begrudgingly accepted the U.S.-led victory in Iraq. But Berlin and Paris also seem to be convinced that we misbehaved and that it is up to Germany and France to convince us of that, or prevent us from doing so again in the future. Are we really moving in the same direction now on Iran, for example? A spokesman from one of the leading German parties returned from Tehran recently, declaring that most Iranians do not want regime change. One German editorial added last week: “The good news is that the Americans are unlikely to intervene militarily. The bad news is [that] the student protests are unlikely to stop.” It sounds like Stabilitaet uber alles.


It is true that Germany and Europe today are no longer the problem they once were. Thank God! The question is whether they will become important as a partner to help us deal with the challenges of a new era.

I served a president and a secretary of state who worked hard to complete the jobs of making Europe whole and free and reorienting our relations to face new threats. Among the many reasons we enlarged NATO, for example, was the hope that it would free Europe from the old security threats to the east and allow it to raise its geopolitical horizon and look further afield. The big question for Germany is whether it will now evolve into that kind of mature global actor. Afghanistan was a step in the right direction. Iraq was not.

We agree that the big strategic challenge we face is the Greater Middle East and that transforming this region should be the next big U.S.-European project. Paradoxically, one of the European foreign ministers who agrees with our thesis is Joschka Fischer, even though he opposed the war in Iraq. Unfortunately, our bilateral relations are so bad at the moment that we do not have him on our side enlisting German and European support.

I believe America needs Europe—as a whole—as a partner to successfully tackle the long-term challenge of transforming the Greater Middle East. Its current weaknesses notwithstanding, Germany is still the center of gravity in Europe. At the end of the day Europeans and Americans are going to end up together in the Greater Middle East—because the problems of the region will pull us in. The only open question in my mind is whether we are smart enough to get our act together in advance or whether it will take yet another September 11 to shock both sides of the Atlantic into doing the right thing.

My greatest frustration at the moment is the fact that the administration does not seem to have any strategy to address this problem. At the moment, there is no meaningful strategic dialogue between Washington and Berlin on the most important strategic issues of the day. That can’t be right.

I think we generally agree on where we want to go. How to get there?

We agree that Afghanistan was a step forward for the Germans; Iraq, a step back. And what a step! Before the United States had asked Germany for a single thing, Chancellor Schroeder had berated a possible intervention as an “adventure”—and added that Germany would never participate, even with a U.N. mandate. One cabinet minister compared the American president to Adolf Hitler; other top ministers marched in the streets and insisted there would be “No blood for oil.” Another leading politician compared the U.S. ambassador to Berlin to a Soviet ambassador. The list goes on. There was an eruption of national pacifism in Germany and, sadly, numerous key opinion makers seemed to revel in all this, long after federal elections had come and gone last September. This was a serious setback.

I understand you still see the German foreign minister as a potential ally. I have questions, though. Like France, the Federal Republic of Germany worked actively and energetically to undermine American policy. Are there limits to disagreement if we wish to have a functioning alliance in the future? Minister Fischer said recently Europe needs its own Boston Tea Party. Does the German foreign minister really think that independence from America is an urgent foreign policy priority? You suggest that Fischer is currently prevented from being “on our side” by the poor state of German-American relations. I would have hoped for more from him. That is, for a project of historic dimensions—democratization of the Greater Middle East—should Fischer not support this as a German and European interest, an enterprise that stands on its own merit? I guess I am looking for him to lead, and not merely follow once fences are mended with Washington.

Finally, I understand we need partners. Germany is important. I want Germany as a major strategic partner of the United States. Then there’s our Germany as it exists today. A medium-size country with an aging population, declining birth rates, economic challenges of a structural nature, modest defense spending, and some considerable hang-ups, apparently, about America and U.S. power. Germans are yearning to be “a partner in leadership.” I can understand this. They are frustrated and resentful that they are not. Okay, a softer touch and sweeter tones at times from Washington would help. But I also feel confident that American foreign policy as therapy is not the answer either. You say we have to get “our” act together. I think that’s being very kind to our German friends. But if the overall objective is to keep bringing Germany and the EU out of their cocoon, I am still with you.

As you know, I would be the last American to absolve Germany for its policy and lack of leadership on Iraq. But that shouldn’t prevent us from looking in the mirror and seeing what Washington did wrong. Clearly you and I would apportion the blame for this current crisis differently. For me, one interesting question is why Berlin showed the right kind of leadership on Kosovo and Afghanistan—but went in the wrong direction on Iraq. And part of the answer is the policies of the Bush administration.

But we agree on where we want to go. The question, as you put it, is how we get there. The issue is not therapy but effective diplomacy. I wish President Bush had been magnanimous in victory on Iraq and picked up the phone and called Chancellor Schroeder to say: “Gerhard, that was terrible. I don’t ever want it to happen again. Let’s set up a process to make sure it doesn’t and to see whether we can narrow our differences in the future.” I wish Germany had gotten over its opposition to the war and made a strategic decision to help us rebuild Iraq the right way. I wish that we were throwing our best and brightest strategists and diplomats into a systematic dialogue on how to deal with Iran or come up with an effective strategy for political and economic transformation in the Greater Middle East. Unfortunately, none of this is happening.

No doubt these are hard challenges. But they are not mission impossible. With the right leadership on both sides of the Atlantic, I believe we can narrow the gap that currently exists. Does anyone doubt that if [former President] Harry Truman and Konrad Adenauer [Germany’s first postwar chancellor] were to come down from the heavens and join this e-mail exchange, what their advice would be? They would be appalled by what has happened and would undoubtedly knock some heads together to get things back on track. What we need today is that kind of leadership—on both sides of the Atlantic. I very much hope it can still come from President Bush and Chancellor Schroeder. If not, I am going to work for regime change in the U.S.-German relationship as well.

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