BERLIN — An illustration of Donald Trump’s outstretched middle finger next to the headline “Goodbye, Europe!” graces the cover of this week’s Der Spiegel.
With his decision to pull the U.S. out of the controversial Iran nuclear deal, Trump put another nail in the coffin of the transatlantic relationship, the influential German newsweekly concluded.
“The West, as we knew it, exists no more,” Der Spiegel editor Klaus Brinkbäumer wrote in the magazine’s opening piece, subtly illustrated with the Stars and Stripes engulfed in flames. “Our current relationship to the U.S. can’t be considered a friendship, or even a partnership.”
The answer: “Resistance against America.”
Despite the challenges facing its military, Germany still provides more troops to NATO operations than any other country except the United States.
Commentators across Europe have struck a similar, if less shrill, tone in recent days. Yet rarely have rhetoric and reality been so far apart in Europe’s strategic debate.
There will be no uprising, much less a revolution against American hegemony. For all of the public heavy breathing by Europe’s media and politicians in the wake of Trump’s decision to honor his campaign promise on Iran, behind the scenes, senior policymakers have pursued a more familiar European tactic — appeasement.
Beyond Iran, what worries many European officials, particularly in Berlin, is that Trump’s move offers further proof of his willingness to follow through on his threats toward them. In Germany’s case, Trump has been lambasting its relatively low defense spending since before he came into office and as recently as last month during a visit by Chancellor Angela Merkel to the White House.
During the lunch meeting, Trump congratulated Merkel, whom he jokingly referred to as the “president” of Europe, for successfully “ripping off” successive U.S. administrations on defense and trade, according to a person present during the exchange.
The message, though not substantively different from what Trump told Merkel during their first White House encounter a year earlier, was unmistakable: No more.
Trump’s decision on Iran has erased any lingering doubts in Berlin over his resolve to take aggressive action. German diplomats are now redoubling efforts ahead of July’s NATO summit to convince Washington they’re making progress on defense. Yet they’re deeply frustrated by the administration’s unconventional approach to diplomacy.
Berlin is still smarting over new U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell, whotweeted shortly after arriving that German companies “should wind down operations immediately” in Iran.
Like so much else with the Trump administration, Germans are slowly learning they have little option but to grin and bear it.
Totemic 2 percent
Trump wants Germany to increase spending on defense to at least 2 percent of gross domestic product, in line with a goal agreed by all North Atlantic Treaty Organization members at a summit in 2014. Last year, Germany, NATO’s second largest economy after the U.S., spent just 1.2 percent, or €37 billion. That compares to U.S. spending of 3.1 percent, or $610 billion, in 2017.
With Trump planning to increase military spending by $60 billion in 2018 — significantly more than the entire German defense budget — Berlin’s protests about needing more time have fallen on deaf ears in Washington.
At home, German politicians avoid the subject of the American military presence in Germany.
Merkel told Trump in Washington that Germany was on course to reach the 2 percent target by 2030, six years after the agreed deadline. Grenell said convincing the Germans to move faster would be his “No. 1 issue” in Berlin.
Reports about the lagging readiness of German forces have only added fuel to the flames. Due to technical issues, only four of Germany’s 182 Eurofighter jets are fully combat ready at present. And less than one-third of the country’s modern military helicopters can fly, according to a parliamentary report.
At a recent gathering in Berlin that included German and American defense and diplomatic officials, one participant told an old joke about how to tell the difference between the American, British and German air forces. The punchline: “If no planes come, it’s the German Luftwaffe.”
The German officials present laughed nervously.
Despite the challenges facing its military, Germany still provides more troops to NATO operations than any other country except the United States. And, as German defense officials regularly remind their American counterparts, defense spending has increased by about 14 percent since 2014.
Still, for Merkel the obstacle to raising spending is political, not financial. With a balanced budget and thriving economy, Berlin could easily spend significantly more while meeting its other obligations.
In recent budget talks, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen pushed for an additional €12 billion by 2021. Instead, she got just €5.5 billion, a level that will leave NATO’s 2 percent target well out of reach.
The problem is that Germans, including much of the political class, consider military spending discretionary — that is, nonessential.
Germany’s history of militarism has imbued much of the population with a sense that the country should expend only the bare minimum on defense. As a result, a wide swath of Germany’s political landscape, from the Social Democrats, to the Greens to the Left party, represents that view.
At a recent defense conference in Berlin with NATO allies, a leading SPD official referred to the alliance’s 2 percent goal as a “fetish.”
“They have a trauma,” said John Kornblum, a retired U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Germany.
Don’t mention the Americans
One side effect of that condition is denial. Public awareness of the role the U.S. has played in filling Germany’s security void has dissipated since the Cold War to such a degree that many Germans appear blissfully unaware of it. At home, German politicians avoid the subject of the American military presence in Germany, where about 35,000 U.S. troops are stationed, more than in anywhere else in Europe.
And for all the energy German politicians have spent since Trump’s election waxing about reducing the country’s reliance on the U.S., the subject of the nuclear shield Washington provides Germany is almost never mentioned.
The debate over German defense spending isn’t new. U.S. administrations going back decades have cajoled the German government to pony up more for the military. But if those discussions were difficult in the past, they have become toxic under Trump.
“We are not prepared for a world without U.S. dominance” — Stephan Bierling, University of Regensburg professor
Ramping up defense spending under pressure from the U.S. president would make it look as though the chancellor were “paying tribute” to him, said Thorsten Benner, the head of the Global Public Policy Institute, a Berlin-based think tank.
“The more he attacks, the more difficult it becomes politically to achieve the goals,” he said.
And yet, Merkel may have no choice. Last week, she repeated that the time had come for “Europe to take its destiny into its own hands.”
But how? European efforts to create “strategic autonomy” from the U.S. are in their infancy. The Continent, as European Commission President Jean-Claude Junckerbemoaned last week, can’t even agree on a common foreign policy. What hope does it have of forming a credible military force any time soon?
In addition to defense, Germany — and Europe — remain deeply dependent on the U.S. for intelligence-sharing in the fight against terror, not to mention the economic links.
So despite the challenges Merkel will face at home for doing Trump’s bidding, ultimately, she will likely have little choice.
“We are not prepared for a world without U.S. dominance,” said Stephan Bierling, a professor of international relations at the University of Regensburg. “We lack a functioning army, a real strategy for what we want, as well as the concepts and leadership to guide us.”
In other words, even if Europe wants to say “Goodbye,” there’s no escaping Trump’s “Hello.”