Germany's and the Future of Europe

Germany and the Future of Europe

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Mary Elise Sarotte, faculty associate at Harvard Universitys Center for European Studies and senior fellow at the German Marshall Funds Transatlantic Academy, discusses the role of German leadership in Europe and the world.

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Mary Elise Sarotte

Faculty Associate, Center for European Studies, Harvard University; Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Academy, German Marshall Fund


MCMAHON: Thank you. Good afternoon from Washington, D.C., and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Bob McMahon, managing editor of, and I’m filling in as guest moderator for Irina Faskianos today. Thanks, all, for joining us. Today’s call is on the record, and the audio file and the transcript file will be available on our website,, within the next few days if you’d like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.

We are delighted today to have on the call Mary Elise Sarotte. She is with us to discuss the role of German leadership in Europe and the world.

Professor Sarotte is a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. She’s a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Academy and the Dean’s Professor of History at the University of Southern California. She is the author of—author or editor of five books, including “The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall” and “1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe.” Both of these are Financial Times Books of the Year, by the way. Professor Sarotte earned her AB in history and science at Harvard and her Ph.D. in history at Yale. Following graduate school, and—excuse me, following graduate school she served as a White House Fellow and joined the faculty of the University of Cambridge, where she received tenure in 2004 before returning to the United States to teach at USC.

Professor Sarotte is a former Humboldt Scholar, a former member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She also serves on the board of the Willy Brandt Foundation in Berlin, and is currently researching NATO expansion and U.S. foreign policy.

So, Mary, welcome, and thank you very much for being with us today.

SAROTTE: Great. Thank you very much.

And thank you to all of you out there listening. I received a list of the universities participating, and I see that they range all the way from The Arctic University of Norway to the University of Central Florida. So we’ve got quite a large portion of the globe and of the Atlantic covered, so thank you to all of you for joining us.

MCMAHON: Well, it’s a testament to the fascinating place that Germany finds itself, I bet, as well. And this call could not be more timely, actually, since Germany’s about to host the first major transatlantic security conference of the year this weekend and the first outing for many of the Trump administration’s top foreign policy officials. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence are both slated to make addresses, as well as meet each other. Conference organizers—conference organizers have sketched out already this week what they see as, quote/unquote, “an existential crisis” for the Western international order.

Now, Professor Sarotte, should we expect Germany to be standing at the ramparts at this conference sort of defending that order? Or is there a bit of overblown anticipation for this event this weekend?

SAROTTE: That’s a complicated question. I don’t think the anticipation is overblown. I think this will, for the reasons that you just mentioned, be a particularly significant event.

For those of you who are not familiar with this, this is a conference that takes place every year. It used to be known by the German name Wehrkunde, but now it goes by Munich Security Conference, and it brings together secretaries of defense and a whole host of their aides, government officials, related businesspeople, and so forth in Munich every February. But this year is going to be particularly important because, as Bob just said, it will be one of the first big foreign policy outings for the Trump team. So I do think that for that reason it is significant.

The question of who will defend the international order, that’s a much—and whether that will happen this weekend—that’s a much bigger question. It’s obviously coming up because the international order for decades—really since the 1949 signing of the treaty that created NATO, NATO of course the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—that treaty from 1949 is really one of the cornerstones of transatlantic order. And the comments of the U.S. president about NATO to the effect that NATO is obsolete have at least rhetorically the potential to overturn that order, and perhaps in reality as well.

And that is pretty—that is very profound. This is a big challenge to many questions that we all thought were settled. And if NATO comes under threat, then other components of the international order may come under threat as well. And then the question will be, will defenders rise to call for its preservation, and will that be Germany or will it not be Germany? And these are some of the themes I hope that we’ll discuss, whether or not Germany can be a defender of the international order.

But my guess is that this coming weekend it won’t—more of this weekend will be Europeans trying to get to know the Trump team and ascertain their views. They got an important preview when Secretary of Defense Mattis earlier this week spoke to NATO, and Secretary of Defense Mattis did echo some of Trump’s language about how NATO might moderate its commitment—quote, “moderate its commitment,” unquote—to countries that don’t have defense spending at a level of 2 percent of GDP. That was seen as significant because while Trump himself has been saying that, this was the most prominent statement by Mattis, and there had been some speculation as to whether Mattis might be on a different page from the president. But he now seems to be echoing the president on that question of appropriate burden-sharing, which is to be fair an old question, but one that’s going to be emphasized anew.

So I think at the Munich conference we’ll look for Europeans to press Mattis for more information on that, press Pence for more on that, see the nature of the interaction between Merkel and Pence as to the body language from their meeting, and try to get a sense of Trump rather than actually rise to the ramparts and start challenging the Trump team now. So I think it’ll be more of a wary, watching, waiting, learning kind of event rather than outright confrontation. But who knows? We shall see.

MCMAHON: OK, that’s a—that’s a great framing for this weekend and for what we’re also going—the other things we’re going to discuss. And I want to take a step back a little bit, as well, and talk about sort of what brought us up to this point, and touch on what you mentioned in terms of these assumptions about the transatlantic relationship and the alliance and so forth. Could you talk first about, prior to this past November, the sort of the state of German-U.S. relations? It has often been commented that the Merkel-Obama relationship, for example, had sort of become the new special relationship in the transatlantic realm. But can you talk a little bit about where we had come to prior to, say, November 2016?

SAROTTE: November 2016, before the election. Sure.

MCMAHON: Before the election, yes.

SAROTTE: Well, there a sort of longer-term and a shorter-term answer to that question. And since I’m a historian, I always like to put issues in a longer-term context.


SAROTTE: So let me talk a little about the longer term and then address specifically your question about the nature of the Obama-Merkel relationship.

Longer term, as I said, the transatlantic partnership has been a cornerstone of international order since 1949. The United States decided, in the wake of two catastrophic world wars, that the best way forward was in a close partnership with its European allies. During the Cold War, of course, those were West European countries because Eastern Europe was behind the Iron Curtain, part of the Warsaw Pact, part of the Soviet military bloc; but then, after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, then increasingly in partnership with Central and East Europeans as well.

And NATO had a lot of purposes, a lot of motivations, a lot of functions. But at one level, it was about a notion of collective security—a notion of collective security. In other words, the United States decided after the experience of World War I and World War II that it was safer working in collaboration with partners, even if at times there were frictions or costs. But on the whole, big picture, grand strategy, it was safer for the United States to work together with partners long term to defend its own interests.

Another way of thinking this is—thinking of this is that the United States faced a question, which is: Where does the territorial defense of the United States start? And prior to the late 1940s, the answer had often been, well, of course the territorial defense of the United States starts at the water’s edge, the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. But after the experience of the world wars that did not spare the United States, and then especially after in 1949 the Soviet Union developed its own nuclear bomb, there was a rethinking, and the United States decided, you know, the territorial defense of the United States actually needs to start on the far side of our oceans, not on the near side of our oceans. We need to be engaged and cooperating with partners. And longer term that’s a better way to defend the United States. So this is one of the motivations for the United States in both creating and then supporting NATO for so many decades. And what is truly new about the Trump administration is that for the first time in, you know, 70 years this question is coming up again. Does the territorial defense of the United States start on the near or on the far side of the oceans?

And that is a very profound question, and the answer to which the Trump administration seems genuinely to want to consider, which really flies in the face of the existing transatlantic alliance, transatlantic order the West has learned, after the catastrophes of the First World War and the Second World War. As you’ll have guessed from the tenor of my comments, I very much believe in the transatlantic partnership and in NATO. And I think it is a mistake, and indeed dangerous, to question it. But that is what this administration is doing. So there are questions coming up now that have not been current in my lifetime, or I would guess in the lifetime of anyone on this phone call. And so history is a very helpful way to understand this, because we haven’t actually genuinely debated these questions as policy in a very long time.

So that’s kind of the broader context. To look short term, you asked about Obama and Merkel. Initially President Obama talked a great deal about—when he came to office—about pivot to Asia. But gradually, over the course of his eight years in office, he realized that Europeans are the—realized the importance of the European partnership. And in particular, he realized the importance of Angela Merkel and of the Germans. The Germans sometimes refer to the Obama-Merkel relationship as a love on the second glance, because at first, as I said, President Obama was speaking about a pivot to Asia and focusing on Asian partners. But gradually as issues came up—such as, to name just one, the Russian aggression in Ukraine—he realized that he needed European partners, and in particular Angela Merkel.

And they realized, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, that they were both very similar in ways. They’re both very pragmatic and that they had very similar styles. And they realized they could work closely together. And so, by the end of Barack Obama’s term, by the end of 2016, they had a very close working partnership, that was also mirrored at the level of their officials. There was a particularly close working partnership between Secretary of State Kerry and the German Foreign Minister Steinmeier—a truly excellent relationship at the level of government relations.

Relations at the popular level were not as excellent, of course. There was a lot of anti-Americanism, pushback against globalization, against the TTIP trade program. So, at the popular level, the relationship was more rocky. But the Obama-Merkel relationship was very strong, and it was set in the broader context of this long-term, decades-long, very strong partnership. So it is really a disruption, both to the recent past and to the longer term past now to see that in question.

MCMAHON: OK, so you sketched out really well sort of the pillars of the alliance. You talked a lot already about the NATO part of this. The EU is the other very important part of this. And I happen—I happened to live in Europe, first Germany then Czech Republic in the ’90s. And the EU was this very important magnet towards the countries emerging from the communist bloc. But also, it was still defining itself as well. But there were always these first-order assumptions that it was important, it was important for the coherence of Europe. Can you talk about where that issue stands now, and, again, concerns across the Atlantic on that?

SAROTTE: Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, there’s a lot of moving parts to the transatlantic relationship, so I don’t mean by starting with NATO to imply that’s the only part of the transatlantic relationship. There’s a lot of components to it. And as you mentioned, the EU, or the European Union, is obviously a huge player in relations with the United States. So there’s no just bilateral relations—such as U.S. relations with Germany, U.S. relations with France—but there’s also relations between the United States and the European Union as an institution. And the indications there are that there will be friction there as well.

The Trump administration—again, it’s, you know, barely been in office but a few weeks, so it’s early days and it’s hard to say. But the Trump administration is showing a strong preference for dealing with countries bilaterally. So, you know, Washington deals with London, Washington deals with Berlin, rather than dealing with the European Union as a whole. And this, of course, flies in the face of the preferences of many Europeans. Many Europeans obviously—it’s a truism to say many European are committed to the European Union. The European Union, of course, won a Nobel Peace Prize not long ago for its role in preserving peace in the second half of the 20th century and in the 21st century.

Again, this is an issue best to read historically. In our lifetimes, we think of Europe as being a peaceful, wealthy, prosperous place—Western Europe during the Cold War and then all of Europe now. But of course, the first half of the 20th century looked very different. And two catastrophic world wars emanated from Europe. And so the European Union is—I think was rightly rewarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in bringing together in a collaborative way states that had been at war for decades. So the Europeans—the European Union is obviously a hugely important institution. It’s simply not going to be possible for the Trump administration to just talk bilaterally with countries. It’s going to need to talk to the EU as well.

And this also impinges on our topic here today of Germany. You mentioned earlier about how people are looking to Germany to be the standard bearer of the international order. If you talk to the Germans themselves, they say, you know, we, the Germans, we function as partners, you know. You know, in the first half of the 20th century Germany struck out on its own, it didn’t work out so well. And what we’ve learned is that Germany works best when it works with its partners. Germany needs to be a European player. And so the Germans work closely together, particularly with the French, to coordinate foreign policy. We saw that—we’ve seen that most notably with regard to Ukraine.

And the Germans will keep doing that. So just on purely a matter of form, the Germans will not want to be singled out internationally. They’ll want to work with their European partners, and particularly with France, on all these major issues. So that’s another particular area where there might be conflict is the Trump administration is saying we want to deal bilaterally with all these capitals individually, and meanwhile the Germans are saying, we are—you know, we are strongest when we work together with our European partners through our European institutions. So there might just, in terms of process, by a mismatch there as to, you know, who’s willing to get on the phone. So that’s going to be another area to watch in the upcoming months and years.

MCMAHON: Right. And upcoming next month are two big things, what looks like the formal kickoff of the Brexit process, as well as elections in the Netherlands, where there is a populist party seemingly ascendant. There will be the spring elections in France as well.

SAROTTE: Yeah. Yeah. And of course, elections—

MCMAHON: Whether working with partners or leading the way, what can Germany do then to—what steps could Germany take to promote European unity and maybe sort of move against the tide?

SAROTTE: Well, see, that’s the big question, right? (Laughs.) That’s the question everybody’s asking themselves in Berlin right now. So, yes, no, you rightly laid out a number of the upcoming issues. Theresa May, it is anticipated—Theresa May, the British prime minister, of course—will formally trigger Brexit. And as you said, there are elections coming up in the Netherlands, in France, and then, of course, in Germany itself.

And in a sense, the wave of transition has already started because, of course, Germany elected a new president this past weekend. The title of president in Germany is not parallel to the American title of president. It’s a—it’s a kind of senior honorary position. And it kind of—the person who holds it is supposed to be a figure of moral authority. The executive head is the chancellor, that’s Angela Merkel. And the presidency has now gone into the hands of the former Foreign Minister Steinmeier, who is from the SPD, that’s the left-of-center party. And so he is new in the role of president. He has been replaced as foreign minister by a fellow SPD leader, Sigmar Gabriel. So transitions are already starting to happen. And then the German elections themselves will take place in September.

And as you rightly indicated, Bob, these will all be taking place in the context of a European Union facing the challenges of Brexit, and also facing, presumably, new challenges from Greece as well, where there will be—continue to be issues with Greek sovereignty. So there are no easy answers there. I think that Angela Merkel will continue to work, as she has in the past, very pragmatically—taking on each issue individually, trying to work through those issues in partnership with France, with Italy, with other leading European countries. She’s also currently in a grand coalition government with the SPD, so working together with the SPD. And I think she’ll just have to tackle that issue by issue, as she has done in the past. There’s not going to be any magic bullet that’s going to address all of the many issues facing the EU right now.

MCMAHON: And really, no issue seems to be bigger as a wedge issue, either internally in the country or between countries, than the migration issue for Europe. Even though it seems to be driving—generating less heat than a year ago, the numbers continue to be high. There’s still what seems to be a tenuous agreement with Turkey to keep many of the refugees, especially from Syria, within Turkey for now. Can you talk about the—what kind of backlash Angela Merkel might be facing as she readies for her own domestic polls for her migration policies? And also where that debate stands, or where that issue stands in Germany?

SAROTTE: Yeah. This is obviously a huge issue. Germany has, as you know, taken in something on the order of a million refugees. I don’t know the exact number, but I believe it’s on that order, which is a huge number of refugees to take in for a country of about 80 million people, give or take. And they have obviously been hugely controversial. There have been strong supporters of that action. There is a phrase that became popular in Germany, the Willkommenskultur a culture of being welcoming to people in desperate need. So there’s been strong support for that policy. But then there’s also been strong pushback, especially after there was violence perpetrated by migrants and refugees including, of course, on the Christmas market in Berlin just this past December.

So that’s a very controversial policy. The signs are that Germany is going to be much less welcoming. There’s a sense of Germany needs to process the refugees that it has already taken. Angela Merkel personally, her popularity has taken a hit because of this. The SPD recently announced who it would be fielding as its candidate for chancellor, a man named Martin Schulz. And he has done surprisingly well in recent polls. There have even been polls where he has been polling ahead of Angela Merkel.

Now, you have to take those with a grain of salt because, of course, the German election system isn’t like the U.S. system. It’s a contest against multiple parties. It isn’t just a head-to-head contest against Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz. So these are, in some senses, fully theoretical polls. They ask—the pollsters ask, if there were a contest just between Angela Merkel and the SDP candidate Martin Schulz, who would you vote for? And in that theoretical poll, in some of them, Martin Schulz is actually polling ahead.

And that’s an interesting development because the SDP has been behind in the polls in past years. So the question is, is that because he’s genuinely popular, is that because she’s unpopular? This is all happening right now and people are trying to understand it. But the upshot is that she is vulnerable. And so it should be a very exiting election later this year.

MCMAHON: And also looking to see how these far-right groups perform as well, I guess.

SAROTTE: And that’s another factor as well. There’s something called AfD in German, the Alternativ für Deutschland, that translates as the Alternative for Germany. And that is a far-right party which is anti-immigrant. And so the question will be what kind of gains will that party make. That’s also—that’s a concern, of course, not limited to Germany. There’s also concern in France that Marine Le Pen, who is also—who is very much in the Trump mold, very much opposed to the European Union, and very much the populist candidate. She’s trying to appeal to those voters as well. So it’s unique to Germany, but that will be an issue in basically—and, of course, in the Netherlands as well—an issue that we’re watching across Europe this year as the elections unfold.

MCMAHON: Well, Mary, thank you for laying all these issues out. I’ve monopolized about 20 minutes of this call, and I want to open it up now to our—to our academic audience. So, operator, please let us know if there are questions on the line, please.

OPERATOR: Sure. At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

And we’re going to hold for just a few seconds. OK, and our first question will come from Babson College.

Q: Hi, Mary. My name is Caleb (sp). I’m a sophomore at Babson College.

And my question is, how many of your colleagues believe or could support the Trump administration’s stance on NATO and international affairs?

SAROTTE: Actually—hello, Caleb (sp). Hello, Babson College. Thank you for asking me the first question. I would have to ask you, Caleb (sp), to define what you mean by my colleagues, because I have academic colleagues, I have policy-world colleagues, I’m at the German Marshall Fund so I have think tank colleagues. Could I ask you to be more specific?

Q: I was thinking policy colleagues, but really any of them. Yeah.

SAROTTE: Policy colleagues, OK. That is hard for me to answer, because obviously, you know, as a historian I like to work with the evidence. And so what people really think in their heart of hearts, you know, can sometimes be hard to guess. So I can only give you a speculative answer. I think for foreign policy professionals—people who have been working in the transatlantic relationship, I think there is a lot of similarity between what I am saying to you and what they are saying to their colleagues. Those of us who have lived in Europe—that includes, of course, Bob, who has his own long, distinguished career in Europe as well—those of us who have been involved in the transatlantic partnership have come to really value it. And as a historian, it contrasts very strongly with the first half of the 20th century when we didn’t have a transatlantic partnership. So I believe I’m on safe ground, although I’m not 100 percent sure, when I say that most professionals working in the transatlantic relationship very much value NATO, value the American relationship with the EU, and worry about what it would mean if the United States seriously undermined those relationships.

Now, that being said, of course there’s always frictions in a partnership—even in a happy, functioning partnership. The issue that Secretary of Defense Mattis brought up at NATO this week, that the United States would like member states of NATO to spend about 2 percent of their national GDP on defense, that’s an old issue. That issue usually goes under the name burden sharing, in other words that the United States and the European member states of NATO share burdens equitably according to their abilities. And the United States feels the best way to do that is to set a target for European member states to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. The United States spends, I believe, currently 3.6, generally closer than 4. But the sense is that the Europeans should be spending 2 percent. That debate is not new. Indeed, debates about appropriate burden sharing go right back to 1949. So that’s not a new issue. It has been present in the partnership. And people working for presidents from Truman to Trump have identified it as an issue.

What does seem to be new about the Trump administration is the aggressiveness of the tone with which this issue is being pushed. There’s also a question of how quickly countries ramp up to spending 2 percent of GDP, even if they are willing. European states in the last couple years, largely in response to what President Putin has been doing, have started showing increased willingness to get to that number. But it’s not—you know, it’s not like you can just turn a faucet on and off. We’re talking about huge expenditures. The German defense budget I think would have to go up by something like $30 billion to even get close to that number. And then you get into some interesting political questions, which is that if Germany really did start spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense, it would start to have a much bigger military than places, say, Britain. And France and Poland might look around and say, you know, do we really want this aggressive militarization of Germany? Is that really in our interest? So you might have political questions there as well.

So it’s a complicated issue that’s been around for a long time. Usually it’s kind of off of the front burner where people try to balance between the realities of what it’s possible to spend, the political comfort level of, say, Germany’s partners. And then of course there’s a question in the German elections, in Angela Merkel doesn’t win, there might be a center-left coalition. Would that center-left coalition be willing to actually still go to that target number? Usually there’s a sense that it’s a complex issue with a lot of moving parts and you can’t just sort of pound on the table and stay you have to hit 2 percent right away. And that seems to be missing. So that’s one of the reasons why when Bob and I started this week we did start by talking about the Munich Security Conference, because that’s the premier venue to discuss things like that—the premier venue to discuss issues like percentage of GDP spent on defense. And everyone’s going to be watching it this weekend to see the tenor, the tone, the discussion.

So I think that people who work in transatlantic policy are worried. They’re aware that these issues aren’t new, but they’re concerned about how they’re being presented without nuance. And there is the possibility for some real damage if the Trump administration continues to show a lack of concern with the complexities involved. Again, it’s early days so I’m—you know, I’m not able to give you a definitive answer. But everybody is—you know, is concerned. Let me put it that way.

MCMAHON: Mary, just a quick follow up. Thank you for that initial question. And, Mary, just a quick follow up from me. Do you get the sense, though, that there also—there are some who see that—possibly some positive coming out of reviving these questions to that there is a—you know, a reaffirmation of maybe the basic tenets of the alliance and of the values behind it, as opposed to complacency, which might have been setting in a little bit?

SAROTTE: Yeah, I think the phrase you just used, reaffirmation of the values, is important. As I said, this is an ongoing issue and it is a significant one. It’s one that’s been around for decades. If it were an easy problem, it would have been solved by now. So, yes. It’s a difficult, ongoing problem. It’s worth addressing it. That is definitely of value. But I think it’s necessary to do it in a way, as you said, Bob, that reaffirms the values of the alliance in an atmosphere of mutual respect and partnership. And that’s where I and others—to go back to Caleb’s (sp) question—are worried, because, you know, it’s one thing to question a partner in a constructive way about a genuine issue, and it’s another thing to just basically challenge your partners and say you’re shirkers, you’re freeloaders, you know, we don’t we have the same values. That’s not a reaffirmation of the values, and that can be very destructive. So the way in which this issue is advanced, I think is very important.

MCMAHON: Great, thanks. Operator, do we have another call on—another question on the line?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Norwich University.

Q: Hello?

MCMAHON: Mmm hmm.

Q: Mark Gill here, a senior at Norwich University, a political science major, Army ROTC.

Q: Matthew Bachman. I’m a senior at Norwich University, Army ROTC.

Q: Do you believe that the German military and NATO will be willing to cooperate with Secretary of Defense Mattis, and rather than just President Trump on defense issues?

SAROTTE: Just to make sure I understood your question, you mean if there—if daylight opens up between the secretary of defense and the president, would the Europeans side with secretary of defense? Is that your question?

Q: Would they rather deal with Secretary Mattis on certain issues when he has more experience, rather than President Trump, with some of his, I guess, crazy ideas.

SAROTTE: Ah, OK. Yeah. Yeah, OK, yeah. Great question from Norwich University. Thanks for the question. Yeah, I see what you’re saying.

Yeah, I mean, the new Trump team is still shaking down, but obviously people who work in the realm of foreign policy and the realm of defense were relieved to see that General Mattis, a man with long experience in transatlantic security issues, as you rightly indicate, was the secretary—was going to be the pick for the secretary of defense, because I do believe that there is a certain comfort level there. European policymakers and American policymakers are familiar with him. They understand his background, as opposed to many other members of the Trump team, who are entirely new to government service and who are new to military issues.

So, yes, there was in the policy world a welcoming view towards Secretary of Defense Mattis becoming secretary of defense. There is, however, a question—I mean, ultimately the secretary of defense works for the president of the United States. And there’s a saying that foreign countries can see daylight between the president and his secretary of defense from the other side of the globe. In other words, that’s a kind of colloquial way of saying if countries feel like the secretary of defense is not on the same page as the commander in chief, that can undermine his credibility. So it’s a little bit of a balancing act, I think, for Secretary of Defense Mattis because he obviously will need to stay true to his own personal experience and principles and beliefs, but he also obviously has to implement the policies of his boss, the commander in chief.

So that’s one of the reasons why his comments at the NATO conference this week were particularly interesting. The president, of course, has been saying things about how he feels NATO members are not paying their fair share. But this was the first time that Mattis has gone out and explicitly said: The United States might, quote, “moderate” its commitment, depending on the spending levels. So that’s a sign that Mattis is carrying out the wishes of the president, which he has to do. And again, it will come down, I think, to the implementation. I think the next few months will be crucial, really. If Secretary Mattis can carry out this strategy in a way that is—to use Bob’s phrase—in a way that reaffirms the values of the partnership and NATO, while also addressing the issue of burden sharing, it will be a huge success.

But, on the other hand, it may—you know, he may have headwinds. He may have interference from above. We’ve been seeing, of course, in the United States, what happened with Michael Flynn this week. We’ve seen a lot of dysfunctionality at the top. There may be things above Mattis’ head for which he is not responsible, but which limit his ability to do his job. So I think that there is a cautious optimism about working with Mattis, but there’s a realization that there are some pretty fierce headwinds, both from abroad—from Vladimir Putin about whom we haven’t really talked yet in length—and internally, domestically, from the dysfunctionality in the White House, the fact that a senior advisor has already had to resign. So again, the jury is out.

I’m sorry not to be able to give you a better answer right now, but it’s still early days. So I’m trying to give you the best readout that I can on the situation as I see it right now.

Q: Thank you, ma’am.

Q: Thank you.

SAROTTE: Sure. Thank you.

MCMAHON: Thanks for the question from Norwich University. Operator, do we have another question on the line, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. We sure do. Our next question will come from Daniel Morgan Graduate School with Jordan Berrick (sp).

MCMAHON: Please go ahead.

Q: What are your thoughts on—what are your thoughts on Germany possibly realigning with Asia or the East and away from the West, and specifically the United States? Do you think that’s a possibility? With increased Chinese and Russian presence in Europe, is the possibility of maybe weakened loyalty from Germany something we should be concerned about?

SAROTTE: I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear your name. You cut out a little bit at the beginning.

Q: Jordan Berrick (sp).

SAROTTE: Jordan. OK, thank you, Jordan, for your question. Yeah, that’s a big question. I actually—that’s interesting you should ask that. I was actually attending a talk yesterday where a scholar, Yascha Mounk, who works on populism was saying, you know, if the U.S. suddenly seems like it’s no longer willing to defend the international liberal order, than countries that do want to defend that order should feel free to go look for other partners and see if they might want to defend that order. So they should go look not just to Asia, but to anywhere in the world where they feel they might have partners. So he was basically saying that countries that don’t want to work with the United States have other options. They should go look for other partners. And it was quite a controversial statement, so there was a lot of discussion about that.

I think that—you asked specifically about China. I would not include China as a—how shall I put this—as an active defender of the international liberal order—meaning, an order underpinned by liberal democracies in cooperation. Of course, China is not a liberal democracy. China is still, in the end, controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and particularly by Xi Jinping. And Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have no plans to change that. They do not want to defend Western liberal democracies. So I think that for Germany—to get to your question, Jordan—Germany, if it were going to sort of turn its back on the U.S. and seek out China as a partner, Germany would also have to turn its back on its values. And that is something I don’t see this German government as being willing to do.

So I see the German-U.S. partnership as one that will continue, but it is clearly going to go into a rough patch. And I mentioned at the outset of this call, relations have been very good at the government level but not as good at the popular level, and now they’re going to get a lot worse. Levels of anti-Americanism are going to go up, so it’s going to be harder for German governments to work closely with the Trump administration. There were already protests against the U.S. when Merkel was working closely with Obama. There were protests against the trade partnership known as TTIP. So it’s going to be more difficult. The relationship is going to be more fraught. There are going to be more crises.

I do see the U.S.-German and the U.S.-European partnership as enduring because, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the Europeans are our worst allies except for all the others. That’s a quotation from Winston Churchill, where he said that democracy is worst form of government, except for all the others. So I’m paraphrasing that to say the Europeans are our worst allies, except for all the others. And I think when push comes to shove, the United States will ultimately always see that. But there can be a lot of—a lot of confrontations and collisions along the way. And those can do a lot of damage. And that can make dealing on—dealing together on important issues, such as facing Vladimir Putin, more difficult.

So just to wrap up my slightly long-winded answer, Jordan, I think the U.S.-German partnership will endure, but I think it will be going into very, very choppy waters in the years to come. So thanks for your question.

Q: Thank you.

MCMAHON: Thanks for the question, Jordan. And, operator, is there another question on the line, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question will come from Texas A&M University.


Q: Hi. My name is Tobias Oder (sp).

And I have a question. Given that Germany—given that Germany elects a social-democratic chancellor in September, what do you think how that would impact Germany’s foreign policy in the European Union and across the Atlantic? Do you think there would be a shift or a certain continuation of recent German foreign policy?

SAROTTE: Thank you, Tobias. That’s’ a great question.

Yes, the elections, as he indicated, are going to be in September. And Germany, as I indicated before, it’s not a system like the United States. There are generally coalition governments in Germany. There is a multiplicity of parties. And after the election is over and the votes are counted, the parties look around and see which parties got which number of votes. And then they start doing the math and see which coalitions could have a working majority. And right now, there’s a grand coalition between the center-left party, the SPD, and the center-right party, the CDU—that’s Angela Merkel’s party. To repeat: the center-left party, the SPD and the center-right party, the CDU. But it’s at least possible that there could be a coalition on the left.

Germans tend to give their parties colors. So the SPD is regarded as red. The CDU is generally called black. But there’s discussion now of what’s being called a red-red-green coalition. Now, that means the SPD and then a party called The Left, which is an interesting party that largely comes out of the former East German Socialist Unity Party. It largely comes out of the Cold War party that was part of the Soviet bloc, together with The Greens, which is both the name of the party and the color assigned to them.

And if there’s a red-red-green coalition—so to repeat, the SPD, The Left, and the Greens—that would, for example, call into question the issue we were discussing earlier, the willingness of Germany to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense, and that would of course lead to friction with the Trump administration. There would be friction on a whole host of issues because the parties of course would all be on the left. There—but as you rightly indicate, so there is often more continuity in foreign affairs than you would think, and this, I believe, would be a factor here as well, because given that there is currently a grand coalition, the SPD is in charge of the German Foreign Ministry—Frank Walter Steinmeier, who is now president, just left the Foreign Ministry, Sigmar Gabriel—I mentioned him earlier—has taken it over—so if the SPD became the dominant party, it may very well hold onto the Foreign Ministry and the same people may stay there, in which case you would have both personal continuity and policy continuity.

So I think that there would be friction, to recap on issues, like defense spending, but then there would also perhaps be more continuity than you would expect. Remember, in the past the U.S. actually had the support of a previous red-green government, when Gerhard Schroder was the chancellor and Joschka Fischer was the foreign minister. Gerhard Schroder was from the SPD and Joschka Fischer was from the Greens. They actually supported U.S. military intervention abroad in ways that you might not have expected from a red-green government. So the—there might be more continuity than you expect. The bigger issue, I think, would be the levels of anti-Americanism, and that would buffet any government regardless of which parties they were in.

So thank you very much for your question, Tobias.

MCMAHON: Thank you, Tobias.

Operator, is there another question on the line, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our next question will come from UCLA.

Q: Hi, my name is David Kim. I’m at UCLA.

My question has to do with the relationship between Germany and Israel. We began the conversation by listening to your sort of short-term and long-term analyses of the—of the Obama-Merkel relationship, and obviously that has radically changed with Trump.


Q: And I’m wondering to what extent you see a certain influence of that relationship on Merkel and Trump, on both sides of the Atlantic, with a view to Israel.

SAROTTE: Yes, thank you very much. Even though I teach at USC, I’m graciously willing to take your question, David, from UCLA. I hope I get credit for my generosity there. Thank you very much for your question.

I have to say right up front, I’m not actually an expert on the Middle East. So I am not on a safe ground when I talk about Middle Eastern politics. I also am, like everyone else, trying to make sense of President Trump’s comments at his press conference with Netanyahu yesterday, where I—he seems to have been intentionally evasive, saying, well, maybe one state, maybe two state, maybe what everyone is happy with. It’s really—I’ve listened to a transcript of that press conference, and it’s really not clear to me, honestly, what the policy is there. So I think I might have to pass on your question, David, simply because it’s not entirely clear yet what the Trump administration’s going to do with regard to Israel.

Obviously, in the end of last year, when the issue with the settlements came up and the U.S. did not block a U.N. condemnation of it, President Trump tweeted out something to the effect of don’t worry, January 20th is coming, the suggestion being I’ll be your great friend in the White House. But there seems to be some backtracking going on now, and I think we have to wait and see where that backtracking ends up. The way that Germany plays into that, then, I think will be determined once the Trump administration positions become clear. Germany of course—because of the history of the Holocaust and the Second World War—Germany of course has a special relationship with Israel and has actually, in many ways, a strong relationship with Israel and tries, I think to as much as possible follow Israel, the wishes of the Israeli government. It needs, however, the German government to understand what the U.S. government wants to do before it can really take out any policy positions. So, again, it’s, I believe, kind of in a wait-and-see attitude.

So I’m sorry not to have a better answer for you, but this is an area where I think there’s genuine confusion and it’s hard to—you know, I don’t want to just speculate for speculation’s sake, because I honestly don’t know where the Trump administration is going and the Germans probably don’t know how they’re going to react until they know where the Trump administration is going.

Q: Thank you.

MCMAHON: Thank you.

And this is a reminder. This is a CFR on-the-record academic conference call with Mary Elise Sarotte, and we’re talking about the topic of German leadership in Europe and the world.

Operator, is there another question for us, please?

OPERATOR: Yes, there is.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

And our next question will come from St. Edward’s University with Mowry—David.

Q: Hi, thank you. This is David Mowry with St. Edward’s University, in Austin, Texas.

I have a question about NATO and Russia. For every NATO expansion eastwards, Russia perceives the threat and that is aggressive, and then Russia is also expanding its military westward towards Europe. What is the German perception of the threat to Russia, and how can Europe in particular, and the United States, deescalate this cycle of increasing threat perception and aggression between NATO and Russia?

SAROTTE: So could I just make sure to answer your question, you said what is the German perception of the threat toward Russia?

Q: From Russia.

SAROTTE: Oh, from Russia, OK. All right, great. And sorry, your first name is David?

Q: Yes, thank you.

SAROTTE: Yes. OK, David, great. Thank you for your question.

Yeah, the issue of NATO expansion, it’s one I’m extremely interested in. I have written on it, including a Foreign Affairs article, and I’m currently working on writing a book on it. So I’ll probably take about seven hours to answer your question, David, so you guys all settle in comfortably because I’m going to on for a while. No, sorry, I realize you don’t have that long.

Yeah, it’s a very important question. The—how to boil it down? Basically, when the Berlin Wall came down back in 1989, that destroyed the Cold War order. So that ended decades of Cold War division between Western and Eastern Europe. Basically, the Iron Curtain was de facto the line between the NATO bloc and the Warsaw Pact, which was part of, you know, the Soviet bloc. And so when that happened, when an order collapses, an obvious question is what comes next. And I’ve written a book called “1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe.” And I suggest, David, you have a look at it, because there’s more in that than I can say right now in the few minutes that I have.

But basically, there was a huge debate in 1990, after the wall came down, about what the future of European security would be. And there were competing voices. Some said, you know, maybe we should create new pan-European security from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and we should include everybody, including the Russians. And other voices said, no, that’s ridiculous. NATO just won the Cold War. The George H.W. Bush administration felt very strongly that, you know, NATO was victorious. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. President George H.W. Bush famously said, “I don’t do the vision thing. Wouldn’t be prudent.” And he felt very strongly that the Cold War Order, and particularly NATO, was successful, so why change it. So he felt very strongly that the United States and Europe should hold onto their NATO partnership and should open up possibilities for NATO to move eastward.

And in a case of continuity between a Republican and a Democratic administration, when President Bill Clinton came to office, he believed in NATO expansion as well and actually implemented it and carried it out. So this moment, this moment of crisis, it passed, this moment in 1990, without any new formulation of institutions. So, basically, you had these preexisting Cold War institutions, most notably NATO, expanding into the post-Cold War world. And Russia initially thought, well, perhaps we can work with this, and the West thought, well, perhaps we can convince Russia to work with this. We’ll try to make NATO more of a political organization and less of a military organization. We’ll try to make it acceptable to the Russians.

But gradually the Russians began to suspect that the old NATO and the new NATO were the same, and that they were basically being left by design on the periphery of post-Cold War Europe. And this then fed into a whole host of domestic problems in Russia, where, of course, the economy collapsed, democracy did not really take root, there was democratization and de-democratization, and then of course Putin comes to power. And so once you get Putin in power, then he feels very strongly that NATO expansion, that it was a mistake for Russia to have allowed it, and he decides he wants to push back against it. And he starts by doing that in 2008 by invading Georgia when Georgia is threatening to become a NATO member, and then of course continues in 2014 by invading Ukraine.

So now, obviously, it’s hugely controversial, and both sides blame each other, right? The United States says, hey, we were transparent about what we were doing. We tried to work with you. You knew it was happening. Why are you now violating the post-Cold War consensus that we don’t change borders with force? Why are you doing that again? And the Russians say, hey, you lied to us, NATO is still militarily aggressive, you took military action in Kosovo, you didn’t live up to your promises, and so we are justified in what we are doing. And so you have identified, David, a very important source of controversy already, and now we have the sort of new—this sort of new challenge by Trump, who’s questioning the foundations of NATO altogether.

So this is a very, very sensitive, controversial topic. And I think you’re right, David, to say that the Germans have an important role to play, because they fit between the United States and Russia. Angela Merkel has a lot of experience dealing with Vladimir Putin. It’s important to remember that Angela Merkel grew up in the Soviet bloc. She grew up in East Germany. She understands how Vladimir Putin thinks. They had similar childhood educations. She’s one of the few leaders who can speak to him in Russian, because if you grew up in the Soviet Bloc, more often than not you had to learn Russian in school. And she did. She actually did very well in Russian. She won competitions. So she can speak to Putin in Russian. And because he used to be a KGB agent, a secret police agent stationed in East Germany, he can answer her in German. Now this doesn’t mean that they like each other. They don’t. But they understand each other and they have a working relationship.

It’s not pretty. There was a famous incident once. This is a famous story in German diplomatic circles. Angela Merkel, unfortunately as a child, I believe she was bit by a dog, or in any event there was some incident that has caused her to be afraid of dogs. And so this is just known, that she’s afraid of dogs. And so at one meeting she had with Putin he intentionally, even though he knew this about her, had his very large dog come in to her just to rattle her, just to basically be rude. And, you know, she wasn’t rattled, but she noted that, that, you know, this is how he operates. These kind of KGB intimidation tactics are still part of his arsenal.

So they don’t have a friendly relationship, but they do work together and they understand each other and they have regular contact. And so she will be an important interlocutor for the West with Russia over issues related to NATO. Everyone’s sort of holding their breath now to see how the U.S.-Russian relationship will evolve. But if there continue to be frictions in places in some of the newer NATO members like the Baltics, then Germany will have a very important role maintaining dialogue and trying to decrease the sense of threat.

So I think you’ve identified, David, an important role for Germany, and a role that really can be a leader in the coming years.

MCMAHON: Thank you.

Operator, we’re ready for our next question, please.

OPERATOR: All right. Next up we have a question from UMass-Amherst.

Q: My name is Peter Vovkovski (ph). I’m a junior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

So recently this morning NATO announced the signing of a multinational fleet of tanker transport aircraft, which includes Germany, Belgium and Norway. Do you think that multinational actions such as this should serve as alternatives to the 2 percent spending of GDP on defense?

SAROTTE: OK, I’m sorry, I couldn’t—I didn’t hear your first name.

Q: Peter.

SAROTTE: Peter, thank you for your question, from UMass-Amherst.

Yeah, that’s a—well, I don’t know if it’s instead of, but there’s two big questions. The question that Secretary of Defense Mattis was asking this week is what are your spending levels. But there’s a secondary question, which is what are you spending it on. And one of the issues inside NATO of course is that it is an alliance of multiple countries. And there’s the problem of redundancies.

So if you’re a European member state of NATO—let’s say you’re a European member state of NATO, and let’s say that you’ve already decided you want to spend 2 percent of your GDP on defense, you’ve already solved that issue. That’s no longer an issue. You’ve gotten—you’ve mobilized the domestic support you need to do that. Now you’re going to spend 2 percent of your GDP on defense. What do you spend it on? Do you say, hey, you countries—Germany, Belgium, Norway, you provide tanker aircraft and we, say, France will provide field hospitals along with our nuclear force, and we’ll get the Italians to produce artillery? In other words, do you divide the tasks up in a multinational way, or—(audio break)—country needs a full—a full toolkit—every nation needs to have everything for itself?

And there are arguments both ways. If you say, no, every country needs everything for itself, then you have a lot of redundancies, and that’s not the smartest way to spend things. On the other hand, if you have a completely integrated spending system set up—say one country suddenly has a populist win the election and that populist says I don’t believe in collective security, I don’t believe in multinational organizations, I want to leave NATO, then all of a sudden, if that was the country that was making the artillery, you don’t have any artillery. So there is the question of whether or not you spend 2 percent, and then there’s the separate of question of even if you spend 2 percent, what are you spending it on.

So that isn’t quite an answer to your question, but it’s a slightly different way of rephrasing it. I don’t think the—I don’t think the Trump administration will be happy if the European member states just say, hey, we’re going to reconfigure our capabilities across national boundaries, because the Trump administration is really thinking in terms of bilateral relations with individual nations. But it’s a genuine question, even if you do, as I said, want to spend 2 percent, exactly how you do that effectively. And so one of the big developments on the horizon that we haven’t seen is going to be Europeans being more independent in their security decisions than they have been before, because they’re going to say, look, the U.S. is unpredictable. We need to think more about ourselves.

Now, that’s not necessarily in the interest of the United States. The United States has always played a bit of a balancing game, because on the one hand in the past it has pushed European member states to spend closer to 2 percent, but on the other hand it doesn’t want European member states to get so powerful on their own that they might, god forbid, essentially become new threats to the United States. So there’s been kind of a delicate balancing act going on.

And again, this goes back to my earlier comments. This discussion about burden sharing, about spending, it’s not new, but it’s very complicated, and it might be in the category of be careful what you wish for. I mean, for example, I have never seen this in my professional life. There are Germans who are starting to talk about Germany having nuclear weapons. Germany has renounced nuclear weapons, which is something that, as the United States, we were very, very happy about. And this is not a mainstream discussion yet, but the fact that it’s even coming up is alarming. The Germans are saying, well, you know, maybe we should be rethinking that. That’s not something the United States should welcome. So, you know, if you’re pushing for 2 percent spending, that’s great. But if the effect is that Germany then becomes a nuclear power, that’s not great. So that’s why I’m worried that the Trump administration’s bull in the China shop approach to this very complicated issue ignores a lot of the nuances and a lot of the potential threats to the United States.

So this is a super complicated issue, and it’s just going to require a close watching and close attention to see what happens and a lot of hard work by foreign policy professionals to make sure it doesn’t go off the rails in ways that are dangerous for the United States, that are not in the interest of the United States.

So thank you for your question, Peter. I realize I didn’t answer it directly, but I think you brought up a whole other important bundle of issues.

Q: Awesome, great. Thank you.


MCMAHON: Thank you.

And I think we have time for one more question. So, Operator, is there another question on the line, please?

OPERATOR: Yes. Our last question will come from City College of New York.

SAROTTE: Hello, City College.

Q: Hi. My name is Stefan (sp)—


OPERATOR: If you could press star-1 again.

MCMAHON: Hello? I think he broke off. Can you—

OPERATOR: Yeah, press star-1 again and I’ll get you back in the queue.

SAROTTE: I heard Stefan (sp) and then you cut out. Hello?

OPERATOR: Stefan (sp), press star-1.

MCMAHON: Are we back?

OPERATOR: One second.

SAROTTE: Gives me a chance to catch my breath. Great questions from all of you students out there. I’m sorry that we don’t have more time to get more questions.

OPERATOR: OK, I’m just going to pull this line open.

MCMAHON: Yeah, it’s a really great subject. Are we back?

OPERATOR: He didn’t queue up again, but I just can go through and get his line and pull it open. One second.

City College of New York, here we go. Your line is now open.

MCMAHON: Hello. Go ahead, please.

OK, we’ll take another question if we have one, Operator. Hello?

OPERATOR: Our next question is from the Washington Military Academy.

Q: Yes, good afternoon to you all. My name is Lieutenant Radigan Willis (sp).

I have a quick question. What is the relationship between Germany and Russia now, and how much of the influence the Trump administration has on foreign policy with Germany or Europe?

SAROTTE: Thank you, Lieutenant, for your question.

The relationship between Germany and Russia now, as I said, it’s a complex one. The—as I said, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin have long experience in dealing with each other, which is not to say that they like each other. The Germans, in particular, have been working with the French to negotiate a reduction in the violence in eastern Ukraine that’s sometimes called the Normandy Format. That means Germany, France, Vladimir Putin, and the Ukrainian leader. That’s what the Normandy format means. And they have met repeatedly in that format, including last fall, to try to negotiate accords generally known as the Minsk Accords. There’s Minsk I and Minsk II, and those are accords that have not solved the problem but have decreased the violence, although there has been a worrisome uptick recently. As Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations often says, you can’t solve all problems. There are some problems you can solve and there are some problems you can only manage. And it’s becoming clear that Ukraine is one of those problems you can only manage. And Angela Merkel has to be credited with doing a lot of the managing.

And, Lieutenant, your question is a good one to end on, because that actually gets back to the theme of German leadership. I think the way that Germany has been working with Russia is emblematic of the nature of German leadership, which is that it is leadership in partnership with the French—so leadership in partnership, not solo but working together with partners, working in a pragmatic way to manage issues. And that is the way that Angela Merkel deals with Russia. It would be wonderful if the Trump administration took the same approach and worked closely with her. Again, the jury remains out on that issue.

So that’s a very brief question—brief answer to your important question, Lieutenant, so thank you for bringing that up at the very end here.

Q: You’re welcome.

MCMAHON: Great. And thank you. That wraps us up right on time.

Mary, first of all, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us today.

And thanks to all of you across the country, and indeed around the world, for taking part in this Academic Conference Call. Our next call will take place on Wednesday, March 8th, at 12:00 p.m. Eastern time. CFR President Richard Haass will lead the conversation on his recent book “A World in Disarray.” In the meantime, I encourage you to follow CFR’s Academic Outreach Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Academic for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events.

So thank you again for joining us today. We look forward to your continued participation this semester.

SAROTTE: Great. Thank you so much, everybody. Bye-bye.

OPERATOR: Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. This concludes today’s teleconference, and you may now disconnect.

SAROTTE: Great. Thank you. Bye-bye


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