Transatlantic Turbulence Ex-U.S. Diplomat: With Trump, Europe at End of Era

Former U.S. diplomat James Bindenagel, who has worked in Germany since the 1970s, says the European era of post-war globalism is coming to an end under President Donald Trump. The big question: What comes next?
British demonstraters protesting U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration policies in Edinburgh, Scotland, on January 31.

President Donald Trump has called into question the NATO alliance, or particularly Europe and Germany’s financial support for NATO. Are we at the end of the NATO alliance?

The question about NATO is very, very important, but it isn’t new. If you look at what (former U.S. Secretary of State) Robert Gates said in his farewell address in June 2011 or at what President Obama’s been saying, they’re calling on the Europeans to do more. What is different is that the president, Mr. Trump, has now taken it to a higher level. He’s made a threat to not follow through with Article 5 (the principle of collective defense) because the Europeans aren’t paying enough. Now that’s more of a threat than it is a withdrawal from NATO. If you listen to his new secretary of defense, there is a strong commitment for NATO. But it is a message to the Europeans that they need to do more for themselves. Now what that means of course, is spending more, living up to the 2% commitment of GDP for financing NATO.  But what that really means is the basis for the discussion, the negotiation, has changed.


Video: Ex-U.S. German diplomat James Bindenagel sees an end of the post-war era in Europe under Donald Trump.

Are Germans ready to take on a greater military role? No, I would say that more than 70% of the German population still lives with the burden of its history, of the country’s history, and is not prepared. James Bindenagel, Former U.S. Charge de Affaires in Germany

That request to increase military spending here and in countries like Germany and France is very controversial, as it was in the 1980s, with the stationing of Pershing missiles on German soil. There’s been a lot of consternation about President Trump’s comments over here. What do you think Europe will do? Will European nations increase military spending to the levels Mr. Trump is seeking, or are we at the point where there might be more tension between members in the NATO alliance?

The European reaction to Mr. Trump’s comments I think will be multifaceted as you note, on both sides. I think that the most important country in this discussion will be Germany, and Germany has already indicated that they will do more, they will step up, they have a very large GDP so getting 2% is a very large amount of money and that’s caused a little consternation. But there’s an understanding that Germany has to do more and take leadership among the Europeans to increase capabilities.

You mentioned increased spending in Germany, I believe the estimate is that Germany would have to spend €40 bill more per year on its defense than it does currently, which is a sizable proportion of the budget. Do you think Germany is ready to make that kind of financial commitment, and do you think Germany is psychologically ready to take on a military leadership role in Europe?

Those are two really very important questions. Are Germans ready to take on a military role? No, I would say that more than 70% of the German population still lives with the burden of its history, of the country’s history, and is not prepared. On the other hand in 2014 (former) President (Joachim) Gauck, (federal defense) minister (Ursula) von der Leyen and (Foreign Minister Frank-Walter) Steinmeier called on Germany to take on more international responsibility and that debate has been going on for two years, so yes, I think there is a change, and that change is just accelerated with Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, the Peshmerga efforts in the Middle East and Syria. So there’s a change in what Germany sees as threats. Those threats of course will determine when additional spending can come. If the Americans take care of the threats, then there’s no real need for increasing spending. However, with Mr. Trump’s comments, it’s clear that Germany has to do more and as already Minister of Defense von der Leyen has already talked about increasing the budget. But with such a large GDP, €40 billion (the estimate of what it would cost Germany each year in additional defense spending to reach NATO’s 2-percent GDP requirement) is way too much for the political debate at this time. But what we can focus on is capabilities. Capabilities such as the Eurodrone they’re working on, buying more transport airplanes, increasing their ability to act, is what will be also part of the answer that I see coming. In other words, it’s a catalyst for the Europeans to do more for their own security in order to keep the Americans in.


We are facing another end of an era; there’s no question of that. The question is: What comes after? James Bindenagel, Former U.S. diplomat who has worked in Germany since the 1970s.

As you know, we’re in an election year in Germany, this is all playing out against a backdrop of local politics. The transatlantic relationship under Mr. Trump’s very young administration has been put to the test. The U.S. appears to be taking a more protectionist approach to foreign policy. If that continues is that an environment that will be conducive to preserving something like NATO? Is it possible NATO can continue parallel in this type of raw political environment? Do you think it’s realistic that Germany would make any increased commitment in an election year?

With regards to the ability of Germany to make commitments, I think that’s the most important. In this election year, the understanding of the transatlantic relationship is, what I call, under a stress test. It’s a stress test not only for the transatlantic relationship but a stress test for democracy. And the decisions to support Brexit, and decisions to criticize the surpluses, to talk about increased taxes or export taxes, is all very destructive, or at least disruptive, in the relationship. So how that works out depends on the answers that come out of it. But it will still leave lots of damage. In the question for the election, will the population accept that they have to take on more responsibility? That’ll depend on a lot of factors, including what the other Europeans are going to do. Before the German election in September there’s the Dutch election in March, and there’s of course the very important French election, and some in Italy as well. So there’s a tremendous change that’s happening that will have a lot of influence on what the future of transatlantic relations will be.

Last question, and thanks for your time today. President Trump’s election has reordered, or has seemed to have reordered, America’s relationship with Europe on a fundamental level. Do you believe we’re at the end of the liberal world order that was created in the post-war period, and are we embarking on a new, uncharted period? Or is this over-exaggeration and what we see and hear each day in the news is actually not the substance, and the status quo, as fragile as it appears, is actually solid?

This is an end of an era. As you mentioned earlier I had the opportunity of seeing the end of an earlier era, the end of Cold War and the unification of Germany and Europe. And in that case the liberal order, or the multilateral order that we had under the Charter of Paris and what we had for the last 27 years, served us very, very well. It was a very happy end of an era. Now since about 2007, or you can actually take 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine, the world order that we knew from the multilateral structures that we had was unraveling. What Mr. Trump’s election has done is accelerated that dramatically. He’s rejecting the multilateral system that we’ve had, the world order that you mentioned, in ways that we have never seen in 70 years. He’s rejecting the European Union, which the United States was a helping founder of and had supported, and he’s now opposing it. We are facing another end of an era; there’s no question of that. The question is: What comes after? And it is clear that nationalism, certainly in China, Xi Jinping’s China, where sovereignty is an issue, or Vladimir Putin’s issue in Russia, with the reestablishment of the greatness of Russia, and the United States ‘Make us Great Again’ have set a pattern of multipolar conflict that will come from the policies of sovereignty and nationalism.


Kevin O'Brien is Editor-in-Chief of Handelsblatt Global. To reach him: [email protected]