News Overview 2015

The German-American Relationship: Common Values, Differing Interests?

The Robert Bosch Stiftung, together with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and the Deutsch-Amerikanisches Zentrum (German-American center) in Stuttgart, invited participants to discuss the future of transatlantic relations. The starting point was the report by a GMF expert committee, the Task Force on the Future of German-American Relations, which evaluated the relationship and developed suggestions on how to renew it. Dr. Karen Donfried, president of the GMF; Juliane Schäuble, journalist; and Dr. Wilfried Mausbach, expert on the United States at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies, provided answers for key questions regarding the bilateral relationship. Andreas Geldner, editor of the Stuttgarter Zeitung, moderated the discussion.
  • As outlined in the task force’s report, German-American relations continue to be close at a governmental level. The German population’s trust in the United States is, however, at a low. Where does this mistrust come from?

Skepticism of the state and politics can be observed on both sides of the Atlantic. According to Karen Donfried, this can be seen in the popularity of Donald Trump in the United States and the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) in Germany among others. Citizens are increasingly questioning the political system. Many people are unsettled by politics, adds Juliane Schäuble: "It is mainly a form of resistance against the things associated with globalization," One example of this is the unease over a loss of control regarding data security. Wilfried Mausbach also observes that, for many, the United States is an ideal target for projecting their dissatisfaction with the manifestations of globalization. The criticisms of the TTIP transatlantic free-trade agreement are, for example, not primarily anti-American but rather anticapitalist. There have always been crises in the German-American relationship, but the view of their shared history is often overly nostalgic. After the Second World War, Germany saw "the West as their new home" with common values, according to Mausbach. On the German side, there was a correspondingly large loss of trust following the revelations by Edward Snowden.

  • What mistakes have been made by both sides?

A central topic in the transatlantic crisis of trust is the NSA scandal and the United States’ tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Schäuble says that was a big mistake. As a reaction to this, Germany created unrealistic expectations among the population with regard to a "no spy" agreement. People took the term "friendship" very seriously, explains Mausbach, and were shocked when big brother USA also turned into a surveilling "Big Brother." In an evaluation, there must nevertheless be a differentiation between espionage – that is, mutual spying without legal basis – and "big data." With regard to the latter, it is essential that Germany and the United States cooperate, according to Donfried: "After Paris, it is clear that there is a threat. It is vital that intelligence services cooperate with each other."

  • The task force concluded that the Americans would like Germany to be more involved in global security policy. What role does Germany play at present?

In terms of their entry onto the world stage concerning international security policy, Germany has still not yet fully matured, but it instead still seems to be stuck in puberty, according to Schäuble. "The problem on the German side is that we have not had experience in taking charge," opines Mausbach. Donfried added that the United States is worried about the European Union. Europe’s greatest successes, the euro and the Schengen Agreement, are under pressure. These problems can only be resolved together. Furthermore, Germany must become accustomed to taking on a more active role in international security policy.

  • How can trust between Germany and the United States be restrengthened?

"You must be willing to understand why others behave the way that they do," says Schäuble. The United States and Germany have different traditions and priorities, which can be seen, for example, in issues such as welfare, foreign policy, and weapon laws. "You cannot just point fingers at others; we both have our problems, such as with racism." Mausbach continues that it is also important to know about the shared history and to be mindful of how your own country is perceived by others. Additionally, differences between the generations must also be kept in consideration, according to Donfried. Young Germans’ image of the United States has been shaped by events such as the Iraq War or Abu Ghraib, and it is therefore significantly more critical, which is also shown in the task force’s report. In the United States, however, people have a largely positive image of Germany. Looking to the future is important now. Schäuble talks of pragmatism: the German-American relationship was damaged by the NSA scandal, but now other priorities have become more important due to new crises. For example, both countries cooperated well together during the Ukraine conflict and, above all, could learn from each other regarding the issue of migration and refugees.

Report by the Task Force