When Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, last week abruptly cancelled a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper declared that the US-German friendship was “in ruins”.
Washington said Mr Pompeo had to fly to Iraq for a pressing Iran issue. But the cancellation of the meeting with Ms Merkel, who has faced harsh attacks from President Donald Trump, was another reminder of how strained relations have become between the US and its European allies.
Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operative elected to Congress last year, said the “contemptuous” way Mr Trump treated allies had hurt some of the most important US relationships. “When you have a good relationship, world leaders understand that things come up,” she said. “If we were in a circumstance where we were benefiting and working closely with the Germans . . . it would be less of a diplomatic drama.”
Since Mr Trump came to office in 2017, the US and its key European allies — Germany, France and the UK — have diverged over everything from climate change to trade to the Iran nuclear deal.
Critics say Mr Trump is undermining alliances that have underpinned transatlantic security for decades by welcoming authoritarian leaders, such as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban who visits the White House this week.
“It is not lost on the Europeans that the president goes after the true democratic leaders and has refused to go after the true authoritarian figures,” said Nicholas Burns, a former US ambassador to Nato. “We are seeing a possible US repudiation of what made the alliance viable over 70 years . . . President Trump does not believe that the EU is a valued ally. He believes that the EU is a competitor.”
Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic presidential contender, told the Financial Times that Mr Trump should be strengthening alliances to help deal with joint concerns such as China. “We have a great opportunity to renew those alliances and friendships . . . and also an opportunity to stand up to the strong men, the autocrats, the dictators that dominate so much of the challenges that we face right now,” he said.
US officials say the president is just trying to ease an unfair burden on the US. Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU, said there had been “too much gilding the lily and not enough substance” over the years.
“We’re interested in substance and then resetting certain relationships between us that have gone completely out of balance, instead of coming here and taking nice photos and attending lovely soirées and allowing the underlying issues to fester,” said Mr Sondland. “Good friends and strong allies have serious conversations.”
Constanze Stelzenmüller, a Brookings Institution Europe expert, said US-EU ties had entered a period of “uneasy peace” as Mr Trump has been focused on reaching a trade deal with China — except for Germany.
While Berlin was unhappy with Mr Pompeo last week, the bigger issue is that both sides are miles apart. Mr Trump is exercised about Germany’s huge current account surplus, its level of defence spending, and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline bringing Russian gas into Germany.
“The US would say that there has been no discernible progress on any of these issues, so why even bother to talk,” said Norbert Röttgen, head of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee. “Trump’s style is that if you don’t give in to America’s demands, he will snub you.”
The US has distanced itself from the multilateral institutions and international agreements that Germany holds dear — a stance reinforced by John Bolton as national security adviser — such as the Paris climate accord.
“Talks with Pompeo in Berlin would not have achieved a breakthrough on any front,” said Ulrich Speck of the German Marshall Fund. “All the dossiers are stuck.”
Germany’s failure to meet its Nato commitment to spend 2 per cent of gross domestic product on the military is a good example. Now Berlin is braced for another setback. There is a growing expectation that Mr Trump will follow through on a threat to impose import tariffs on European cars, which would be a body blow for the German car industry.
Clete Willems, a former senior Trump administration official and incoming partner at law firm Akin Gump, said it was “critical” that the US and EU work together. But he said the US “has serious concerns about the EU’s agricultural market access barriers, regulatory barriers for autos and other products, and taxation policies that harm US technology companies”.
While some European officials hope Mr Trump will not impose the auto tariffs while he negotiates with China, Mr Sondland warned about complacency. “The president very much intends to use the auto tariffs as a tool if necessary,” he said. “The president has a ‘wait and see’ attitude right now, as these talks resume to see if there is forward progress being made or if Europe continues to drag its feet indefinitely.”
Relations between the US and Germany have also been hurt by highly unusual interventions by the US ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell. In March, he warned Germany that the US would scale back intelligence sharing with Germany’s spy agencies unless Berlin blocked Huawei from its 5G network. And in January he wrote to companies involved in Nord Stream 2, warning their activities “carry significant sanctions risk”. Martin Schulz, the former Social Democrat leader, said he was behaving “like an extreme rightwing colonial officer”.
Germany and the US have hit rocky patches before. Gerhard Schröder and George Bush fell out over the US invasion of Iraq, but their administrations stayed in close contact. For Mr Trump and Ms Merkel, that is not the case. At the G7 in Canada last year, Mr Trump threw several pieces of candy on to the table in front of Ms Merkel and then told her she could never claim that he never gave her anything.
“The temperature of the relationship froze as soon as Trump came in, and it has never recovered,” said Mr Speck.
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