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Opinion: Will a new face in the White House bring a “New Deal” for US-German relations?

Updated: Feb 27, 2021

Photo: Müller / MSC, CC BY 3.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

It's fair to say that hopes are high in Germany for the Biden-Harris administration. In an interview with Der Spiegel on 8 November, Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas underscored Germany’s commitment to restoring diplomatic relations with the United States after four unsettling years of Donald Trump in the White House. First, Maas called for a “fresh start” in transatlantic relations. But then he called for a “New Deal” in transatlantic diplomacy to match that which Biden has promised domestically. Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed this sentiment, calling for Germany and the US to stand “side-by-side” on the global stage, “taking on more responsibility”.

Heiko Maas, German Minister of Foreign affairs, tweets: "Europe and America need a transatlantic New Deal. Germany and France will work towards this - together with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, who believe in the international partnerships and the friendship between the USA and Europe"

Public relief

The collective Aufatmen (sigh of relief), a word which has come to characterise the immediate reaction to Biden’s victory in Germany, is perfectly understandable. Indeed, a figure like Biden, formerly Vice President to Barack Obama and who enjoyed considerable popularity in Germany, is bound to win their sympathy. But more than anything, the relief is a response to the shortcomings of the incumbent 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump.

Trump is no friend of the German government, even if he did declare himself a “proud German-American” in 2011. His personal relationship with Angela Merkel was always difficult, to say the least. In March 2017, clashing personalities and ideological antagonism combined to make Merkel and Trump’s first meeting a diplomatic car crash, with a notoriously uncomfortable photoshoot. Famously, Trump appeared to ignore Merkel’s request for a handshake, and amicable gestures between the pair have been few and far between ever since.

US-German relations under Trump

Perhaps the biggest snag in the German-American relationship over the past four years has been Trump’s ardent protectionism. A man whose 2016 election win depended on votes from the Rust Belt, with ambitions to reignite the stagnating American automobile industry, was never going to be sympathetic to German exports.

Trump’s protectionism never reached the proportions he had promised voters in 2016, and the threatened 25% tariff on imported European cars, which would have been a disaster for the German automobile industry, never materialised. Nonetheless, Germany has continued to feel the force of Trump’s protectionism, with threats to impose $3.1 billion in new tariffs on a range of goods from France, Germany, Spain and the UK in June this year. Furthermore, on October 9, the U.S. Department of Commerce introduced a new tariff on German aluminium sheet imports, with a rate of 132%. Though the USA can rightly claim that it has suffered greatly from overcapacity and price dumping, targeted tariffs of this kind consistently were never going to win Trump favour in Germany, the nation with the world’s largest trade surplus.

Biden's approach

Biden’s campaign was carefully stripped of openly protectionist rhetoric, with calls on his campaign website to stop “picking fights with… allies and undermining respect for America”. On 17 November, Biden signalled a clear shift in tone from his predecessor on this front, “I'm not looking for punitive trade. The idea that we are poking our finger in the eyes of our friends and embracing autocrats makes no sense to me”. However, it remains to be seen whether his “Made in All of America” policies will provide scope for further distrust and ideological antagonism with Germany. Trump’s trade wars will come to a swift end, but tensions over the trade deficit and globalisation could well emerge further down the line. After all, Biden’s campaign remained coloured by something of an “America First” approach, with his “Pro-American-Worker Tax and Trade Strategy”.

Another issue that has been raised in recent weeks is the presence of the US army in Germany. The President-elect was quick to raise concerns in July this year when Trump announced a “strategic withdrawal” of around 12,000 American troops stationed in Germany. He has not yet provided a definitive statement on whether he will reverse Trump’s policy, which was announced without consulting German authorities. However, Biden’s election renewed optimism in Stuttgart, which hosts the headquarters of US European Command and US Africa Command. Meanwhile, Bavaria's state minister Markus Söder has expressed hope that plans for troop withdrawals will be reversed, having previously stated that Trump’s policy was putting strain on US-German relations.

Though trade and military have been the most persistent bones of contention in German-American relationships during the Trump Presidency, the German response to Biden’s environmental policy has been particularly positive. Biden’s headline commitment to a $2 Trillion Climate Plan has certainly sent positive signals, as has his plan to get America on its way to net-zero emissions by 2050. As Germany and its EU allies seek to tackle the issue with increasing urgency, the shift from disinformation and climate change denial to a science-based approach is long-awaited and much-appreciated.

It is this style of government – one which listens to the science – which will help Biden win back the sympathies of the German establishment. As Germany reckons with the unprecedented growth of its anti-vaccination movement, the President-elect’s promise to dispel conspiracy theories and to take a tougher approach to contain the virus will be music to the Robert Koch Institut’s ears.

The danger of excessive optimism

Though Biden’s election is certainly a return to normality, it cannot be seen as a return to stability, nor is the American system conducive to the political stability that Germans have been able to rely upon in recent times with a Chancellor who has been in office for fifteen years. After all, it is Congress that holds the “power of the purse”. While the Democrats have held onto a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives, Biden will likely face difficulties in the Senate, and it remains unclear whether the increasingly partisan voting could leave his administration cash-strapped and hamstrung.

The prospect of divided government and frequent shifts in the balance of power with elections every two years leaves the Biden administration in a precarious position. What’s more, with Amy Coney Barrett joining the ranks of the Supreme Court, the Affordable Care Act, the greatest achievement of the Obama-Biden administration, and the abortion rights established in Roe v. Wade, both face a new threat. It would hardly be surprising if Biden finds himself with so much on his plate at home that he simply cannot give Germany and the EU what they seek.

One thing’s for certain, it will be impossible to banish the spectre of Trumpism in the space of four years, in the US or overseas. While a collective Aufatmen is justified, those hoping for a diplomatic “New Deal” in Germany may well have to adjust their ambitions as Biden faces challenges old and new on the domestic front.


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