So, what do they say now in order to qualify his every pronouncement? After Donald Trump’s epic dress-down of the leaders of the democratic world, we see legions of self-avowed pragmatists coming forth to right-phrase the U.S. President. They say that he did not mean what he said, or failed to say—on NATO, on trade, on migration, on Europe, and on Germany. They maintain that haranguing allies over their defense spending is just a negotiating tactic of a successful businessman. They claim that his advisers, anyway, said all the right things—even if the President himself fell silent when it mattered most. They say Donald Trump is learning, like every new U.S. President. And they argue that Europeans should look at what he does, not listen to what he says.
Yes, they allege all of these things. But their words sound increasingly hollow. We should identify them for what they are: the narrative of the party of wishful thinking. All these analysts, former officials, and think tankers—with the weight of their titles and the years of their experience—would simply whitewash the muddy stream of consciousness that this U.S. President calls policy.
The reality is that words matter in international relations, as they do most everywhere else. The credibility of alliances is not solely based on treaties and military hardware, but on trust and the belief of others that an alliance will actually do what it has set out and is sworn to do. We should picture Vladimir Putin doing cartwheels in the Kremlin upon hearing that the U.S. President is now actively avoiding recommitting to NATO’s common defense clause.
It is painful to watch this spectacle, and even more painful to watch it from Germany. This is not simply because of the manifest anti-Germanism that this American leader displays. (All these bad, bad Germans doing harm to poor America!) It is painful to watch Donald Trump shoving aside the leaders of allied nations and, in the process, shoving aside the world order our forbears built. The glib callousness with which he does it is nothing less than frightening.
My country has benefited greatly from the system of cooperation among democratic nations that over the past nearly seventy years we have gotten used to calling the liberal international order. Becoming part of that postwar order has been crucial to Germany’s rehabilitation and reintegration effort. The Europe that had suffered greatly from German hubris was now transformed into a ring of friends organized around first NATO and then the European Union. This constituted a kind of soft shield, part armor and part nest, that enabled Germans to revive their country as an economic power, but, much more than that, to look at each other after the catastrophe of war in order to face and overcome the fears within without having to simultaneously face other fears from without. In terms of wealth creation and economic stability, security and protection of individual rights, no other international system in history has come close to delivering as many goods to Germans as the current liberal international order.
Because this system has been both good to us and good for us, Germany in the post-Cold War period has begun to take on the responsibility of becoming a regional guarantor of this order rather than just being a beneficiary of it. But Germany cannot do this alone. Without the United States as a full partner, the weight of political leadership may become too much for it to bear and it will certainly be perceived to be overbearing by other European countries.
And now along comes Donald Trump. He sees the period of America’s unrivaled power, wealth, and influence as a road leading to national loss and decline. When he travels his country he sees “American carnage.” And when he looks at its foreign relations, he sees allies and partners taking advantage of American goodness and American generosity. In his narrative, America is getting a raw deal, whether on trade or on alliance defense. Trade is not a tide that lifts all boats, but a zero-sum game. NATO is not a system of collective defense that protects the United States and its interests, but rather a murky agreement that allows Europeans to buy protection from the United States. In this thinking, the U.S. military is something akin to a foreign legion for which Europeans don’t pay the bills.
For his followers, President Trump’s Brussels tirade was his finest nationalist hour. In Germany, it is seen as yet more evidence that Trump wants to unmoor a system that Germany wants to preserve. The America that this President envisions is a revisionist power; Germany is fundamentally a status quo power.
To Germans, this is a problem from hell, a seemingly insoluble conundrum. All of Germany’s major political parties—and the vast majority of Germans with them—want to uphold the order that the West built. But to do so requires American leadership, not just in arms, but in all the ways that matter: in foresight, moral clarity, and good judgment.
The only chance to best this problem from hell might be to protect transatlantic relations from Donald Trump as best we can. To do that, Germany suddenly needs what it did not need for decades: a strategy for dealing with the United States. In recent years, American-German relations were no longer about these two countries, but about what they did together in the world. It was a relationship of kinship that, in the end, was about policy coordination. Now, it is again about basics. German leaders now need to figure out how to mix accommodation, confrontation, and tactical stalling in their dealings with the new Administration.
It did not have to be this way. In the words of U.S. President Donald Trump: It’s sad, very sad.