Atlantic Rift Germany bids farewell to the post-war order

With a US-German trade war more likely by the week, Berlin is reluctantly drawing up a new strategy to deal with Washington, a radical break with 70 years of foreign policy.
Stalemate writ large.

In the wake of a disastrous G7 summit, Germany’s ambassador to the United States admitted the world had changed dramatically since Donald Trump’s inauguration as president. Peter Wittig told Handelsblatt that Trump’s administration had lost interest in its traditional alliances. “The US government is saying goodbye to the post-war tradition of the West as a community of like-minded nations,” the ambassador said.

Faced with an erratic US president, Germany is changing tactics. The foreign affairs ministry is drawing up a new strategy to deal with an aggressive United States, in a radical break with 70 years of German foreign policy, diplomats told Handelsblatt. Such strategies are normally only drawn up for difficult partners or adversaries, such as Russia and China.

Preparations for the new approach began last year but have intensified since Mr. Trump tore up the nuclear deal with Iran and imposed trade tariffs on allies last month, including the EU and Canada. Berlin has come to the realization that its current policy of damage control no longer works. Foreign minister Heiko Maas will contribute to the reassessment this week.

The plan, first reported by the US news magazine The New Yorker, aims to strengthen the European Union and assess whether the changes enacted by Mr. Trump are part of a structural shift in US foreign policy.

Bleak mood

The disappointing G7 summit and furor over a murder in Germany prompted Angela Merkel to make a surprise appearance on a Sunday talk show immediately after returning from Canada. The chancellor hinted at changes in Germany's foreign policy. “First, there is loyalty to our own nation, but secondly, there should be loyalty to the European Union,” Ms. Merkel said.

She refuted host Anne Will's claim that Germany was powerless in the face of Mr. Trump’s hostile policies. “We won’t let ourselves be pushed around time and again. We will act,” Ms. Merkel said. Germany and the rest of the European Union will retaliate with tariffs on US products imported into Europe as of July, she added.

The mood among German politicians and experts is bleak. Andrea Nahles, the leader of Ms. Merkel’s coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats, was openly and personally critical of Mr. Trump. She called American president a “bringer of chaos” who made rational, reliable politics impossible. Private industry also is critical. “America First really is becoming America Alone,” said Eric Schweitzer, president of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce. He said Germany must forge a new alliance of trade-friendly nations.

Holger Bingmann, president of the Federation of German Wholesale and Foreign Trade, described the G7 summit as a “bitter disappointment for the West.” Economists say a US-German trade war is more likely than ever before. Clemens Fuest, head of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, an influential think tank, told Handelsblatt that escalation was now just a step away.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration continues to up the ante on trade. Even before the G7 meeting, Mr. Trump’s key economic adviser Peter Navarro repeated the threat to impose tariffs on German auto imports. The “era of America’s complacency on trade is over,” he wrote, complaining of an unfair German trade surplus, especially in the automotive sector. With that position, the era of a cooperative, trans-Atlantic partnership may very well be over as well.

Several Handelsblatt correspondents, including Gerd Braune, Martin Greive, Sha Hua, Moritz Koch, Annett Meiritz and Jens Münchrath, contributed to this story. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] and [email protected]