Berlin is preparing for the possibility that Donald Trump could beat Joe Biden in the next election. That outcome would likely be a disaster for Ukraine, NATO and the looming climate crisis. Diplomats have begun establishing contacts with the former president’s camp to avoid being blindsided as they were in 2016.
By Markus Becker, Markus Feldenkirchen, Marina Kormbaki, Veit Medick, Ralf Neukirch, Christian Reiermann, Jonas Schaible und Gerald Traufetter
28.04.2023, DER SPIEGEL
It seemed like the 45th United States president, whose ancestors came from Germany, had an obsession with the country , but not a positive one. It often seemed as though he regarded Germany as America’s greatest enemy, even as he got along splendidly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and others of his ilk. At least those ties were better than his relationship with then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“The Germans are bad, very bad,” Trump declared in May 2017 at a meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels, where one of the issues under discussion was Germany’s trade surplus. “See the millions of cars they are selling in the U.S. Terrible. We will stop this,” he said.
Over and over, he let the world know how he viewed the Germans: a nation of parasites who have taken “advantage of us for many years.” He also saw the country as being unreliable, if not controlled outright by external forces. “Germany is totally controlled by Russia,” he railed in July 2018. And later: “So, we’re supposed to protect you against Russia and you pay billions of dollars to Russia.”DER SPIEGEL 18/2023
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 18/2023 (April 29th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
Despite his penchant for preposterous rhetoric, Trump wasn’t always wrong, sometimes even recognizing German hypocrisy or inconsistencies before the Germans did themselves. Still, Berlin was elated when Trump lost to his Democratic challenger Joe Biden in autumn 2020. The tenor in both Berlin and Brussels is that the trans-Atlantic relationship probably wouldn’t have survived a second Trump term.
But now, that is exactly what could happen.
Trump announced his intention to run for a second term in the White House several months ago. In polls, Trump is far ahead of potential rivals from his own party, including Florida Governor Ron de Santis, who is widely considered to have the best chance to beat Trump in the primaries.
Since this week, it has been pretty certain that Joe Biden will be Trump’s opponent again. The incumbent president would be 82 years old when he took office for his second term, and 86 when it ended. Trump, who is himself already 76, may not seem more serious by comparison, but he is definitely more dynamic. And the last race between the two of them was already a nail-biter.
A second presidency is actually a realistic outcome for Trump. At the very least, forward-looking politicians are considering the possible scenarios, especially in Berlin and Brussels, where Trump’s favorite opponents are based: NATO, the European Union and Germany
Michael Link is the German government’s coordinator for trans-Atlantic cooperation. If Trump were to be re-elected, it would make his job a lot tougher. “Trump would be a greater challenge for Germany, Europe and the world in a second term than he was in his first term,” says the politician, who is a member of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP). “He would probably govern in an even more unrestrained, unpredictable and defiant manner.”
Olaf Scholz in New York City in 2020: It’s likely the German chancellor would lock horns with a President Trump. Foto: Michael Kappeler / dpa
Preparations for the 2024 U.S. elections have already become a significant component of his job, and he is planning on traveling to the U.S. more often in the near future. “In the end, what counts are steady contacts in the executive and legislative branches of government,” he says. “Individual senators can have a decisive influence on whether and how a bill is passed. If the going gets tough, they can be important allies.”
Agnieszka Brugger, deputy head of the Green Party group in Germany parliament, also argues that preparations must be made for the possibility of Trump 2.0. She says the Europeans need to be more self-reliant and less vulnerable, regardless who is the current president of the U.S. “Even though we in the EU have become better in the technological, economic and security fields with regard to the crises of this world, we are still too slow,” Brugger says. She says Germany and the EU should broaden their horizons and expand partnerships and alliances, “especially with countries of the Global South.”
Disastrous for Climate Protection
Some in the German government believe that if Trump returns to office, it will be a horror scenario for climate protection. The Greens, in particular, recall with dismay his first term, when he withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement. Trump also rolled back over 100 environmental protection policies, made it easier for companies to drill for oil and gas in the ocean and allowed a controversial pipeline project to go through. Most crucially, though, he weakened the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by putting people at its helm who trivialized climate change.
Under Trump, the U.S. “would probably immediately withdraw from international climate finance,” says Lukas Köhler, who is deputy head of the FDP’s parliamentary group and responsible for his party’s climate protection policy. He says it would have been difficult to move forward with commitments to establish a fund for offsetting climate damage without commitments at the last global climate summit. The system’s future would be in question without funding from Washington.
At the G-7 summit in Germany last summer, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Joe Biden continued to hone the idea of a climate club, a community of countries that want to move their economies toward climate neutrality. Such a fundamental transformation requires significant investments and puts companies at a disadvantage relative to those corporations who can continue producing in a manner deleterious to the climate in other countries. The idea of the club is to support each other and prevent competitive disadvantages for their own industry. Its members now include countries like Chile, Argentina and Indonesia. “Right now, the U.S. is showing what it is made of in terms of climate policy,” says Green Party head Ricarda Lang. “If that were to change again, a key driver for climate action worldwide would be lost.”
Without U.S. backing, global efforts to protect the climate likely would likely stall. Foto: Bundespolizeipräsidium Potsdam / dpa
The Threat of a Trade War
The most dangerous conflict for Germany in trans-Atlantic relations played out in the realm of trade policy. During his second year in office in 2018, Trump launched a trade war, declaring steel and aluminum imports from the EU a threat to national security and slapping a 25 percent punitive tariff on them. The EU retaliated with tariffs of their own on traditional American products like jeans, bourbon, whiskey, motorcycles and peanut butter.
The tone between Washington and the European Commission, the EU’s executive, has unsurprisingly improved dramatically since President Joe Biden took office. But in terms of substance, little has changed. Like Trump, Biden is also pursuing an “America First” policy.
At first, it looked as though the situation might become less tense. Both sides basically suspended the punitive tariffs at the end of 2021. Officials also reached agreement in the dispute over subsidies for aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing, which had been simmering for years. There was also a great deal of euphoria when Biden made a big push to transform the U.S. economy at the end of last year. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) is a huge subsidy program of over $370 billion for climate-friendly products ranging from electric cars to wind turbines. Upon closer examination, however, Germans and Europeans discovered that the IRA contains a strong protectionist component: The rules only allow domestic producers to benefit from the subsidies.
With billions in subsidies and low energy prices, the U.S. is in a position to lure companies away from the EU, especially in the field of important green technologies. Car companies could also migrate to the U.S. given the significantly lower cost of electricity. “In terms of security policy, the EU and U.S. are close, but on trade issue, Washington shows no willingness to make any concessions,” says Bernd Lange of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), who is the chair of the European Parliament’s Foreign Trade Committee. And if Trump were to return to the White House, Lange believes, he would “likely tighten the protectionist stance seen in his first term.”
FDP foreign policy point man Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, on the other hand, is more optimistic. “I am confident that the sensible Republicans in Congress could prevent the worst from happening,” he says. “Even under Biden, not everything is easy – just look at his protectionist stance on economic issues, for example.”
“Biden is saving our asses in Europe.”
Michael Roth, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament
International financial markets are also likely to react extremely sensitively if Trump is re-elected. They are very good at sniffing out incompetence, which Trump demonstrated plenty of during his one term in office.
For example, he repeatedly tried to force the U.S. Federal Reserve, which is supposed to be independent of politics, to lower interest rates. He also drove up the U.S. national debt with big promises. It is true that the national debt also rose during Joe Biden’s term in office. But there was no turbulence on currency markets. Investors trust Biden and his team to act professionally.
There are a number of foreign policy experts who are urging people not to lose their composure over the upcoming election. “NATO isn’t dependent on just one person,” says Sergey Lagodinsky, a member of the European Parliament with the Green Party. “A second term for Trump should be an incentive for us to strengthen European political self-sufficiency.”
That’s also the view taken by leading foreign policy experts in Berlin. “Biden is saving our asses in Europe,” Michael Roth, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German parliament and a member of the SPD, says of Europe’s dependence on the U.S. He argues that Germany needs to do more for its own and European security, “regardless of whether the next president is named Biden, Trump or something else.” Roth ticks off a list that are unlikely to draw any applause at any of his center-left party’s conventions: “the steady increase in defense budgets to at least 2 percent of gross domestic product, the strengthening of the European defense industry and the expansion of Europe’s strategic capacities.” Marie-Agnes Strack of the FDP also calls for greater German self-reliance. “It makes no sense whatsoever to ‘prepare’ for different presidents,” says Strack, who chairs the Defense Committee in German parliament. “We can’t influence that, anyway.”
Ukraine Would Probably Be Lost without the U.S.
So far, Europe hasn’t been great at demonstrating its self-sufficiency. There are no disputes within the alliance about the overall goal of Europe’s strategic autonomy, which French President Emmanuel Macron has emphasized repeatedly. But there are differences of opinion about what, exactly, that means. The Eastern European countries, above all Poland and the Baltic states, are opposed to a stronger military role for the EU. They want Europe to do more within NATO to bind the Americans more closely to the Continent. Macron, on the other hand, wants the EU to become an independent player on the global stage, also militarily. Berlin is somewhere in-between. These conflicts will erupt in full if Trump becomes president again.
A return of Trump to the White House would also be disastrous for Ukraine. In recent weeks, Trump has again revealed in several interviews his impassivity toward Russia’s breach of international law and his lack of empathy toward the suffering of Ukrainians. He has claimed that if re-elected, he would end the war in Ukraine “within 24 hours.” And if it were up to him, Russia would have been allowed to “take over” parts of Ukraine. They would be “very simple negotiations,” Trump says, because he gets along very well with Vladimir Putin.
Trump has always admired Putin, probably even more than Kim Jong Un. Russia’s influence on the 2016 U.S. election in favor of Trump is likely one reason for this loyalty. Even on the eve of the Russian attack, Trump described Putin’s action as “pretty smart.” He has never spoken that enthusiastically about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. One possible reason is that Trump reportedly urged the Ukrainian president to open an investigation into the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, where Biden’s son Hunter was once employed. But Zelenskyy refused – and Trump is widely known to be vindictive.
The threat from Russia is greater than it has been in many years. But under Trump, it is unlikely the NATO alliance could rely on the U.S. Foto: JAVIER CEBOLLADA / EPA
Ukraine probably would have lost already if it weren’t for support from the U.S. Western military assistance for Kyiv didn’t gain momentum until Washington took over coordination. And Brussels is currently demonstrating what happens as soon as Washington lowers the pressure: Europe becomes entangled in minute details. At the end of March, EU leaders announced that they would deliver 1 million rounds of artillery ammunition to Ukraine within 12 months and that they would jointly procure ammunition in the future. Since then, however, they have been arguing about the small print. “The inability of the EU to implement its own decision on the joint procurement of ammunition for Ukraine is frustrating,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba wrote on Twitter last week. “For Ukraine, the cost of inaction is measured in human lives.”
If Trump were to beat Biden next year, Ukraine would almost surely grow even more frustrated. Trump tends toward isolationism. If it were up to him, the U.S. would increasingly stay out of other countries’ conflicts and invest even more in the domestic economy. His foreign policy reflexes are guided by economic interest rather than values.
A resolution recently passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a group of Trump supporters ahead of the first anniversary of the invasion offered a preview of Trump’s possible Ukraine policy. Its title: “Ukraine Fatigue.” In it, 11 Republicans call for an end to military and financial aid for Ukraine. The motion shows clearly that a completely different U.S. Ukraine policy is conceivable.
Diplomats Approach the Trump Camp
In Berlin, a second term for Trump would likely result in the most changes for Annalena Baerbock. The German foreign minister, a member of the Green Party, maintains an amiable relationship with her U.S. counterpart Antony Blinken. Both have played some role in keeping the West in close alignment on sanctions against Russia. If Trump were to win the election, Baerbock would lose more than just a trusted partner. It would also weaken the kind of values-oriented foreign policy approach she has sought, not to mention her vision of a feminist foreign policy . Both are likely to be totally foreign concepts to Trump.
At the Foreign Ministry in Berlin, officials want to at least be prepared for that scenario. As such, the priority in German policy toward America is to establish contacts with U.S. Republicans. It won’t be an easy project: Ties to the Republican camp have either been dormant for a long time, or they simply do not exist.
Staff at Germany’s embassy and consulates in the U.S. have been tasked by headquarters to identify all potentially relevant individuals. From this point on, anyone traveling to the U.S. with the Foreign Ministry or other government ministries is expected to meet with U.S. conservatives, even in destinations far away from Washington. In particular, Andreas Michaelis, who will take up his post as the new German ambassador in Washington this autumn, is reportedly establishing targeted contacts in the Trump camp in order to be prepared for the worst-case scenario. It is a lesson learned from Trump’s first election as president. In 2016, the German government was counting on victory by Hillary Clinton and had not bothered to establish contacts within Trump’s team until it was far too late. The idea is to prevent that from happening again.
Moreover, Baerbock’s diplomats have identified issues with which the Germans might be able to find some common ground with Republicans. One example on this list is the promotion of electric cars. Since the emergence of Tesla CEO Elon Musk, this issue is no longer relegated exclusively to the realm of the leftist fringe.
Another issue is China. Under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry, Germany is currently developing a China strategy that, on balance, advocates adopting a greater distance from the People’s Republic. There are few other issues over which the U.S. Republicans and Democrats are as united as on their tough stance toward China. Berlin’s China strategy is being designed in a way to show the Americans that Germany can also be an ally in the Indo-Pacific realm. It is unclear, however, whether German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will ultimately support the Foreign Ministry’s robust China stance.
Neither Scholz nor those close to him want to see the status quo in trans-Atlantic relations change too quickly. They argue that it has been years since diplomatic contacts with Washington have been as close as they are right now and they point out that a hotline to all key players in the Biden administration currently exists.
Besides, Trump and Scholz seem like two men from different planets. Trump’s brand of politics is frenetic, while Scholz consistently seems as though he has just been taken out of cold storage. While Trump follows his instincts or wants to make a quick headline, Scholz trusts only his wits or Wolfgang Schmidt, his devoted chief of staff in the Chancellery. How are those two world’s supposed to fit together?
A President Trump could actually create some advantages for Scholz personally. Some on the chancellor’s team recall Angela Merkel in this context: Internationally, she was only able to rise to the position of defender of the free world because there was someone in Washington who was seen as its destroyer. Scholz, according to the interpretation of those close to him, could also play himself off as Trump’s foe if need be.
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