The populist revolt which brought Donald Trump in the White House has affected Europe in general and Germany in particular in several ways: directly, institutionally, in terms of method and approach. Directly, as Trump, time and again, singled out Germany for its trade surplus with the U.S., its level of military spending, its migration policy, its energy relationship with Russia. On all these issues, Germany has an open flank and is vulnerable indeed. Trump attacked Europe institutionally by disparaging the EU and by calling America’s commitment to NATO in question. In other words, he has hit the foundations of the security, political and geo-economical order in Europe upon which our prosperity and security are based. One might add that the policy on the ground has not proved fears of American disengagement from Europe right.
The third challenge is the Trump’s dislike for multilateralism and international treaties. His is the approach of a nationalist who views the world as a zero-sum-game. As you know, multilateralism is Germany’s gospel in international politics. But to be honest: Germany’s record is not unblemished, too. Energy comes to mind. And while Trump shows disdain for allies, Congress is cherishing alliance relationships: It was the largest ever Congressional delegation that participated at the most recent Munich security conference ten days ago.
Defense has been a bone of contention for many years. Trump definitely has a point. American calls to correct a fundamental imbalance have long fallen on deaf ears in many European countries – no more. including Germany. Since a couple of years the German defense budget is rising – against strong resistance from the left. By 2024, it will be at 1,5 per cent of GDP as agreed by the coalition Parties in Berlin. In 2014 the defense budget was 32,5 billion Euros, the current one is 43,3 billion Europe which translates into 1,34 per cent of GDP. In light of the dismal state of the German military, this increase is highly welcome, but it is still a long way from the NATO two per cent goal. Even, though, the Christian Democratic part of the government is adamant to close the gap in future years, which is the right thing to do. But it remains doubtful that the country will get to that. The public now reluctantly agrees that the embarrassing deficiencies of the Bundeswehr need to be taken care of. But the dimension of what needs to be done over many years makes this almost a mission impossible. Maybe only a major international crisis or some other disaster may be able to turn it into politically sustained program.
The Big Switzerland syndrome still applies to many Germans
Indeed, there are more obstacles. The German government cannot be sure of public support for enhanced international engagement, particularly when it comes with a heavy price tag and carries major risks. The German public is definitely skeptical. Asked if they prefer involvement or restrain, in a poll sponsored by the Koerber Foundation a majority of Germans said they are in favor of restraint (53 per cent) while a strong minority (43 per cent) supported a more active involvement. So military deployments, to Africa for example or to other far-away regions, usually are received with scepticism. In a nutshell for many the Big-Switzerland-Syndrome still applies. Not many Germans are eager to adopt a strategic culture, but many cherish the pacifism that was part of the fabric of the old federal republic.