1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Will a new government change US-German relations?

Ian Bateson
October 11, 2021

For decades, the United States was the global policeman. As it reconsiders its role and builds new alliances, any new German government will have to adjust.

European, US and German flags
Maintaining a close relationship with the US will remain key to any new German governmentImage: picture-alliance/U. Baumgarten

Following the formal end of the US military mission in Afghanistan on August 31, US President Joe Biden addressed the American nation. The decision to pull out, he said, was not only about Afghanistan: "It's about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries." 

That amounted to a reevaluation of America's role in the world. "As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation for the last two decades, we have got to learn from our mistakes," said Biden. "We set missions with clear, achievable goals, not ones we will never reach." 

With such new priorities, it is no longer fitting to think of the US as the world's policeman, said Jonathan Katz, director of democracy initiatives at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a transatlantic think tank. "The definition of world policeman is outdated in the sense that US engagement globally now is really a focus on what the US and this administration and partners see as the most important issues." 

Values crisis at core

Dramatic scenes of Afghans trying to flee their country triggered a debate in the US about the future of America's role in the world.  

Comparisons to Vietnam in US media have led many to wonder whether the Afghanistan withdrawal will lead to a similar pullback in US foreign policy. 

"The world for the last 50 years has banked on a level of leadership from the most powerful country that, increasingly, it is not likely to get," said Ian Bremmer, founder of the political consultancy Eurasia Group in a YouTube comment.

Bremmer says the role the US played during the Cold War and after 9/11 is one no longer supported by enough of the American public and believes alliances with other countries will increasingly be based on other interests besides common values. 

Bremmer says that not weakening military or economic power are driving the change in foreign policy, but rather a crisis over the values they once believed they were defending across the globe. 

According to a Pew poll from June 2021, 57% of Americans believe that US democracy "used to be a good example, but has not been in recent years." The second-largest group, 23%, did not believe it had ever been a good example. 

"There's a growing constituency among Americans for whom these kinds of wars with the hope of transforming societies just aren't very popular," said Atlantic Council senior fellow Damir Marusic. "After Afghanistan, the big nation-building enterprise has taken a serious body blow, probably for a generation." 

The withdrawal from Afghanistan provides an opportunity to shift strategic priorities and focus more on confronting Russia and China, and addressing backslides in established democracies, according to Katz.

Focus on security cooperation

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, European leaders are taking stock of a world with a more limited the international role for the US. "Germans and the Europeans, in general, are realizing again how dramatically dependent they are on America," said Stephan Bierling, a professor of international relations at Regensburg University. 

That realization has revived calls for greater military cooperation within the European Union. "As a global economic and democratic power, can Europe be content with a situation where we are unable to ensure, unassisted, the evacuation of our citizens and those under threat because they have helped us?" European Council President Charles Michel said on September 1 at the opening session of a strategic forum in Slovenia.

In an op-ed for the The New York Times, Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, called for more investment in security capabilities. "The timing and nature of the [Afghanistan] withdrawal were set in Washington. We Europeans found ourselves — not only for the evacuations out of the Kabul airport, but also more broadly — depending on American decisions," he wrote.

Those views have been emphasized in Germany. "The EU must be able to act without its American partner," said Armin Laschet, a leader for the center-right Christian Democrat Union, in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The concept of greater military cooperation within the framework of the EU is not new, nor has it seen broad success. The EU maintains rapid reaction teams of about 1,500 personnel, but they are not sent into active conflict zones and have never been used in a major crisis. Plans for a new military cooperation are now on the table again.

Bastian Giegerich of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, which focuses on international affairs, believes such investments in joint military capabilities after events in Afghanistan are essential — yet require a certain commitment. "That is impossible without a strong German contribution." 

Fallout over French snub 

Adding to concerns about the future of US foreign policy in Europe was announcement of a new Indo-Pacific security pact between the US, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Intended at least in part to contain China, under the agreement Australia canceled a contract worth 66 billion Australian dollars (€57 billion) with France for 12 diesel submarines that was five years in the making. Australia is instead to buy nuclear submarines from the US.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called the switch a "stab in the back" and described Biden's foreign policy as "Trump without the tweets."

France was only notified of the deal hours before it was announced. According to analyst Noah Barkin, "a rush at the top levels of the National Security Council to deliver a big win for Biden after the embarrassment of Afghanistan" led to little consideration of how this could affect other allies.  

Such events have rung alarm bells in Berlin. "The way this decision came about was certainly sobering, coming without any prior consultation with those it most affected," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told DW. "Everyone asks themselves: What if this happened to us?"

Maas said it is clear that the US wants to engage more in the Indo-Pacific and less in other regions. "That inevitably raises the question for the European Union: What about our engagement?" he added. 

A changing US-German relationship  

For now, the US has continued to keep approximately 36,000 soldiers in Germany. Biden had reversed plans by former US President Donald Trump to deploy 12,000 of those troops elsewhere. In April, the Biden administration announced plans to increase its military presence in Germany by some 500 additional personnel.

Not just the US, but also Germany has been affected by the end of the Cold War and the weakening of values-based alliances. According to a 2020 Kantar Public survey, nearly the same number of Germans see China as the No. 1 partner for their country outside of Europe, alongside the US. Among Germans aged 18 to 34, that number rises to 46%. 

Though China has become an important trading partner for Germany, the Chinese-German relationship cannot replace the relationship with the US, believes historian Klaus Schwabe, a professor at RWTH Aachen University. He says China's security strategy and political system make it impossible for Germany to have the same relationship with China as it has had with the US.  

Whichever coalition is built in Germany after its recent election will have to quickly make its priorities clear. As the Biden administration retools US foreign policy, it has struggled to find European partners able to stay the course, Katz thinks.

"Germany will have new leadership this fall, Macron has an election coming up, the UK is still in a post-Brexit situation — so it is hard to find those leaders right now to be in lockstep with this administration."

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year’s elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.