War of Words: Turbulence in the German-American Transatlantic Partnership

By Christian Stampfer on 31 May 2017
  • Share

MUNICH—Germany and the United States have, since the end of the Second World War, been the closest of allies and partners. The relationship has been predicated on the two nations’ strong beliefs in democratic ideals and a strong transatlantic economic trade partnership.

The Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan did much to cement a positive perception of the United States in Germany much as U.S. opposition to the punitive Versailles treaty had following the end of the First World War.

Earlier, stories of cowboys and Indians on the American frontier were immensely popular in Germany, where children and adults were fascinated by novels and movies about the period including those by Karl May, a German writer best known for his two main protagonists Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, despite his never having visited America.

Today, however, it appears that a seismic shift may be taking place.

Following what could only be described as a contentious series of meetings including the recent NATO summit in Brussels and a Group of 7 meeting in Italy, it appears that German-American relations are at their lowest point since 1945.

Last week, President Trump threatened to stop sales of German cars in the United States and reportedly had some choice words for the German people.

The Germans “are bad, very bad,” several participants in the summit told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, which reported what he said in German as, “Die Deutschen sind böse, sehr böse.” The word “böse” has multiple meanings including “evil.”

“Look at the millions of cars that they sell in the USA,” he went on to say. “We’re going to stop that.”

This didn’t go unnoticed in Berlin.

On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking at a political rally in Munich, said that Europe could no longer rely on the United States as a partner. Europeans must “take our fate into our own hands,” she said.

What troubles the Trump administration is the chronic trade surplus Germany has with the United States.

“We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany, plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military,” Mr. Trump said on Twitter on Tuesday. “Very bad for U.S. This will change.”

While the statistics on the trade surplus are indeed correct, they also only tell one side of the story.

A German company, BMW, not Ford or General Motors, is the largest single U.S. exporter in dollar value in the automotive industry. Indeed, in addition to BMW’s plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen also have large factories in Vance, Alabama, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, respectively.

Along with their suppliers, they account for some 700,000 employees and, in the first four months of 2017, produced almost 300,000 vehicles, the bulk of which was destined for export markets, including Germany itself.

Vehicles made here include the BMW X3, X4, X5, and X6; the Mercedes-Benz C-Class and GLE-Class; and the Volkswagen Atlas and Passat.

Granted, Germany’s trade surplus with the United States is, to use the president’s favorite word, huge. It was $64.8 billion in 2016 and not much less in prior years. Germans view their prowess in exports as a matter of national pride and, while they are clearly disinclined to address this specific issue, the figures do not begin to tell the whole story.

Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel set out to reaffirm the importance of strong German-American ties.

“Transatlantic relations are of paramount importance,” she said to reporters after a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Berlin. “What I did was merely to point out that in light of the present situation, there are yet more reasons that we have to take our destiny in Europe into our own hands.”

Jonathan Spira contributed to this essay.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)