Donald Trump has declared war on Germany. In a manner of speaking. Europe’s most important country, potentially America’s most valuable partner, has in the mind of the president become an adversary. Of all Trump’s many foreign policy disasters, this is perhaps his most significant.
In late July, it was announced that retired army colonel Douglas Macgregor, a decorated combat veteran, would become the next ambassador to Berlin. Macgregor is a regular contributor to Trump’s favourite channel of information, Fox News. He has variously suggested that the US border guard should shoot people if they tried to enter illegally from Mexico; described eastern Ukrainians as “Russians”; defended Serbia’s actions against a “Muslim drug mafia” in Kosovo; and criticised Germany for giving “millions of unwanted Muslim invaders” welfare benefits rather than providing more funding for its armed services.
Most painfully for his new hosts, Macgregor seems to have sided with the far right in talking down Nazi crimes. He described the concept of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with history), which has underpinned culture and politics since the war, as a “sick mentality that says that generations after generations must atone sins of what happened in 13 years of German history and ignore the other 1,500 years of Germany”.
If the Senate’s foreign relations committee confirms Macgregor’s nomination, he will replace another Fox shock-jock commentator. No sooner had Richard Grenell arrived in Berlin in 2018 than he went on the offensive, vowing to “empower other conservatives” across Europe. By that, he did not mean Angela Merkel’s coalition, but nationalists surrounding her, such as in Hungary and Poland. A number of German MPs called for Grenell to be declared persona no grata. Merkel resisted, but the affair spoke volumes for the collapse in ties.
Trump rewarded Grenell for his work, promoting him to acting director of national security in Washington. In a further demonstration of pique, he announced last month the withdrawal of nearly 12,000 troops from bases in Germany.
From the outset, Trump loathed Merkel. She represents everything he is not. On the international stage, she respects interlocutors who do their preparation and don’t spring surprises. She disdains his visceral vulgarity. The leader who let in a million of the world’s most destitute in 2015 refuses to be cowed by a bigot and bully.
She couldn’t be accused of not trying to get along. In March 2017, two months into his administration, she flew to Washington for their first meeting. She prepped assiduously. She studied a 1990 Playboy interview that had become a set text on Trumpism for policymakers. She read his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal. She even watched episodes of his TV show, The Apprentice.
It started badly. She offered him a handshake in the Oval Office in front of the cameras. He didn’t take it. Her studied lack of emotion and her deeply analytical mind were anathema to him. Her aides say she learned to explain complicated problems to him by reducing them to bite-size chunks. He read this as high-handedness.
Trump has a track record of misogyny and some cite this as the reason for his dislike. Others put it down to a narcissistic resentment of praise conferred on others. When she was chosen as Time magazine’s person of the year in 2015, he said: “They picked the person who is ruining Germany.” What particularly upset him was the magazine calling her chancellor of the free world. “What Merkel did to Germany, it’s a sad, sad shame.”
Yet this same woman, who from a young age dreamed of driving across the American plains and adored Ronald Reagan for freeing the world (and her native GDR) from communism, is by instinct a staunch Atlanticist.
She has found the setbacks hard to take. Arguably the single worst incident came before Trump. It was the revelation in 2013, courtesy of Edward Snowden, that the National Security Agency had been bugging Merkel’s personal mobile phone for years. She was incandescent when told, for once losing her famous impulse control. In an angry phone exchange with President Barack Obama, deliberately shared with the media, she told him: “This is like the Stasi.”
This relationship has always been complicated. Germans remember with fondness the liberation of their country, the airlift that ended the Russians’ blockade of Berlin. They devoured American culture. They fell in love with John F Kennedy, his 1963 trip to divided Berlin indelibly etched in the history books. But the left fought tooth and nail against nuclear deployments under Reagan. George Bush’s Iraq misadventure drove a terrible wedge, not least his attempts to divide the continent into New and Old Europe. Even with the more centrist and amenable Bill Clinton and Obama there were bad moments.
Successive US administrations have expressed frustration. The Nord Stream gas pipeline, chaired by former chancellor Gerhard Schröder, has underlined Germany’s dangerous energy dependency on Russia. It contradicts Merkel’s otherwise consistently tough approach towards Vladimir Putin. She was instrumental in ensuring that the EU imposed sanctions after the annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Berlin no longer praises China as the gift that keeps on giving and belatedly sees it as a strategic competitor, but Merkel balks at strong criticism of it. As for defence, the failure of Germany to meet the agreed Nato target of spending 2% of GDP on defence has been a source of irritation.
But nothing comes close to the current situation.
The German foreign policy establishment is clinging to the hope that Trump will be defeated in November. A Biden presidency would not remove all the tensions, but it would signal that the US was moving back towards the diplomatic mainstream. The country that personifies the mainstream would have reason to celebrate.
• John Kampfner’s latest book is Why The Germans Do It Better: Notes From a Grown-Up Country