Two German chancellors have been awarded America’s highest civilian honor, the presidential medal of freedom. The first was Helmut Kohl, honored in 1999 for reunifying a democratic Germany bound to Europe and the United States through the EU, NATO and the dense transatlantic cobwebs of trade, investment and friendship. The second was Angela Merkel.
During her ceremony in the White House Rose Garden in 2011, Ms. Merkel, who spent half her life in communist East Germany, spoke emotionally about growing up with a dream of freedom generally, and specifically “the freedom to travel to the United States.” America always supported liberty, she said, and “it is to this resolve that we Germans owe the reunification of our country in peace and freedom.”
Contrast those words with her remarks in a Bavarian beer tent this week, following a disastrous visit to Europe by Donald Trump. “The times in which we can fully rely on others are partially coming to an end, I’ve experienced that in the past few days,” Ms. Merkel told the audience, who cheered in support. “That’s why I can only say – we Europeans have to take our fate into our own hands.” Though she diplomatically avoiding mentioning America or Mr. Trump explicitly, nobody was left in any doubt that Germany had in effect declared its emancipation from its post-war overlord, role model and protector.
That message echoed from the beer tent across Europe and to America, for it may herald a historic shift. Through her mentor Helmut Kohl, Ms. Merkel traces her political lineage as a Christian Democrat back to Germany’s first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer. A staunch Catholic and Rhinelander who grew up closer to France than Prussian Berlin, Mr. Adenauer was determined to rid his country of a nationalist tradition that viewed Germany as exceptional, anchored in neither the West nor the East, and destined to go it alone. Adenauer blamed that mentality for two world wars that had left Europe and Germany in rubble.
Adenauer’s answer was “Westbindung”, binding the Federal Republic unequivocally into the West. One layer of this integration was transatlantic, through NATO and the Bretton Woods System. Another layer was European, through reconciliation and friendship with France and the process of European integration. So staunch was Adenauer in giving primacy to unity with the western Allies (America, Britain and France), even at the apparent expense of reunification, that his opponents on the center left and far right questioned his patriotism and attacked him for being a “chancellor of the Allies.”
All of Adenauer’s successors adhered to Westbindung. Willy Brandt, the first Social Democrat to become chancellor, supplemented it with a so-called “Ostpolitik”, striving for detente and rapprochement with the eastern countries behind the Iron Curtain. But no German government questioned American troops stationed in Germany, and the basic dynamic of American leadership and German loyalty.
The West German population was torn, however. Some Germans adored America, as personified by the photogenic John F. Kennedy when he toured the besieged West Berlin in 1963, telling rapturous throngs: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Other Germans became anti-American, especially on the (anti-capitalist) left and the far right. Under the mantle of pacifism, hundreds of thousands of Germans took to the streets in the 1980s to protest the deployment of new American nuclear weapons intended to deter Soviet aggression. Culturally, too, West Germany was riven. American pop music, movies and clothes were all the rage. But many Germans looked down on American culture as “superficial,” and, at least initially, saw their stereotype confirmed when an actor wearing cowboy hats became US president in 1981.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, however, Germans were quickly reminded of the value of America’s friendship. Of the four wartime Allies, only American under George H.W. Bush immediately favored German reunification, and persuaded Britain, France and the Soviet Union to agree to it. But the eastern Germans who joined the Federal Republic had different ideas about America. After decades of communist propaganda, many felt closer to Russia and wary of America. Today the two parties that are most anti-American, the ex-communist The Left and the far-right Alternative for Germany, are strongest in eastern Germany.
The first shift away from the tight transatlantic relationship occurred in 2003 under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a center-left Social Democrat. Mr. Schröder refused to back the US-led coalition in Iraq, resulting in a deep rift with the administration of George W. Bush. Ms.Merkel, then leading the opposition, believed Mr. Schröder had isolated Germany in his rush to oppose US policy.
As chancellor, Ms. Merkel had her own run-ins with Washington. Two years after she received the medal of freedom, Ms. Merkel’s faith in America as a guardian of liberty was tested when a former US intelligence agent named Edward Snowden revealed that the National Security Agency was spying on allies, and had even tapped Ms. Merkel’s cell phone. The chancellor was reportedly livid, comparing the NSA to the Stasi, the East German secret police. But Ms. Merkel always returned to her default position: that America and Germany had to remain close partners to keep the world free, open and safe.
The election of Donald Trump on an America-first platform shook that assumption. Since his inauguration, Ms. Merkel’s doubts have only grown. Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized Germany for its trade surplus and the large number of Mercedes, BMW and Porsche cars it exports to the US. His decision to slap duties on European steel and aluminum in June and cancel the nuclear deal with Iran also haven't helped the relationship. At the NATO summit in mid July, he again slammed Germany, calling it a "captive of Russia" because Berlin imports energy from Russia and backs Gazprom's pipeline project, Nord Stream 2. The president called on Germany to "immediately" raise defense spending to meet NATO's 2 percent target. Mr. Trump also reiterated his preference for a hard Brexit after he had predicted that other countries would follow Britain's example and leave the EU. All of these undermine Germany’s national interests, and break with decades of US foreign policy.
For Ms. Merkel and her administration, these and the spat at the G7 show that relations with Washington have changed, perhaps for good. Faced with an erratic president who is willing to launch a trade war against his allies, Berlin has drawn up a new strategy to handle a more aggressive United States. The move, a radical break with 70 years of German foreign policy, shows Berlin has accepted the fact that its damage control policy had stopped working. Ms. Merkel may yet decide that the US has metamorphosed from being a partner and protector to an adversary and a threat.
Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. Gilbert Kreijger contributed to this article. To contact the authors: firstname.lastname@example.org