At what is looking more like an inflection point for the world, Germany and the U.S. have differences of opinion on tactical approaches on issues as wide-ranging as dealing with Iran, defense spending and tackling COVID-19.
That’s to be expected, and the terrain of cordial disagreement is easy enough to navigate, said German Ambassador Emily Haber in a virtual talk with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta Thursday.
More troubling, she told Council President Charles Shapiro, is when the strategic pillars that underpin ties between the U.S. and Europe’s largest economy begin to crack.
“What I worry more about is if we start to look at the world and at the international environment through different prisms,” Ms. Haber said in a conversation framed around the idea of a “strained alliance.”
The U.S. under President Trump, she said, looks more and more committed to using its economic heft to impose its will, shoving aside precedent and international rules.
That short-term temptation is undeniably attractive, and there is a case to be made that leveraging power to exact the maximum concessions in bilateral talks on trade and security is a strategy that could produce results for an economy as large as that of the U.S., Ms. Haber said. Germany, however, is built differently.
“We are one of the most globalized countries in the world, and we depend on the transparency and predictability that only a framework of rules and organizations and institutions can promise. It’s our lifeline, and that’s where I see a certain bifurcation in our relationship,” she said.
German Investors’ Wishes
In this environment, Ms. Haber has been hearing one clear message when asking Georgia’s growing cadre of German investors about their biggest worries as they try to recover from a pandemic-induced recession.
“The answer inevitably is a lack of clarity. Investment decisions need clarity,” she said.
The threat of tariffs on cars and parts are a concern as well, and other industries like aerospace remain in the trade “crosshairs” at a time when greater consensus — or at least a temporary truce — would help the U.S. and EU economies bounce back more quickly.
“I do think that targeting each other with tariffs, which hamper consumer choice, help no one and inhibit trade is overcasting the potential that we actually should have,” she said, noting that from her view in Washington, it seems that the U.S. is focusing heavily on its potential for a deal with the United Kingdom rather than deepening its negotiations with the EU.
The problem is that other countries are exploiting the pandemic to undermine global democracy and drive a wedge between the transatlantic allies, she said, pointing to China’s increasing boldness on the issue of Hong Kong, the repression of its Uighur minority and increasing authoritarian bent.
“The world is changing, and I do not believe it is tilting toward the advantage of the West; it’s not,” she said.
Without a course correction, the trend could continue, leading historians — like Dr. Haber, who holds a Ph.D. in history — down the road to scratch their heads about what might then seem like it would have been an easy fix.
“The question they will be asking is, how is it that we could not either acknowledge or then follow up on leveraging each others’ power and clout in order to stand our ground and in order to defend our interests?”
Strategic Concerns, Recovery Efforts
The issues of trade concern have spilled over into the defense realm, she said. While U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper laid out a strategic argument for redeploying some 12,000 troops out of Germany last month, contradicting Mr. Trump’s suggestion that the decision was retribution for Germany treating the U.S. badly on trade.
Ms. Haber took a moment to tackle the perception of Germany as a “delinquent” defense ally, noting that the country has increased its defense spending dramatically to about 1.6 percent of its GDP. That’s short of the 2 percent commitment among NATO allies, but the 2024 deadline to reach that threshold hasn’t yet arrived. Moreover, Germany has been a steadfast contributor of troops to international missions in places like Afghanistan and the Baltics.
“All of that is curiously absent in the arguments of those who say that Germany is a delinquent partner,” said Ms. Haber, an expert on security and defense.
It’s not as if the allies don’t have enough on their respective plates already to be adding stress to their partnership.
Germany for the second half of 2020 holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, which means it sets the agenda for the 27-member bloc.
But its years of planning for this moment have been waylaid by the pandemic and a variety of unforeseen moments of crisis, from the recent blast in Beirut to protests in Belarus against what the EU has classified as an illegitimate election.
Dr. Haber drew from her Russian/Soviet expertise to contrast the internal issue in Belarus with the more geopolitically competitive Ukraine situation that led to Russia’s seizure of Crimea 2014.
“This is not about geopolitics. This is not about Brussels, not about Moscow, it’s about Minsk. This is about the fate of the citizens of Belarus,” she said.
All this comes on top of negotiations with the recently departed United Kingdom on its trade relationship with the EU, as well as the yeoman’s work of shepherding the economic recovery from the pandemic.
Germany is focusing on the immediate work of the latter while aiming to juggle the rest of the “balls in the air,” Ms. Haber said.
The work began early in the pandemic, as EU member states in April hammered out a half-trillion-euro relief package that focused heavily on preserving employment.
A more monumental agreement came in July, when the bloc’s members agreed to allow the European Commission one-time authority to issue joint bonds to fund a 750 billion euro (about $825 billion) recovery package. Some 390 million euros is expected to come in the form of grants, while 360 million will have to be paid back in proportion to the recipients share in the EU budget, according to reports.
This amount will be tacked on to the 1.1 trillion euro Multiannual Financial Framework, a spending plan for 2021-27 which is being revamped with recovery in view.
Contrary to reports that framed it as a contentious process pitting once again northern countries against the more indebted southern nations, Ms. Haber believed the need for the joint recovery package was clear to most countries.
“In this case it was existential and immediately had an impact on the psychology of the European Union, making clear that there would be a huge political price tag should we not be able to muster collective answers to a collective crisis which cannot be attributed to an individual economy.”
As for Germany itself, the economy is showing signs of life, prompting predictions of a return to growth next year as people have returned to work and school.
But in a development that provided another reminder of how fragile progress can be against COVID-19, Germany today recorded 1,700 cases, its highest daily tally since way back in April as many European nations struggle to tamp down recent surges as vacationers return home.
Ms. Haber served as State Secretary in charge of homeland security and migration policy from 2014 until 2018 at the Federal Ministry of the Interior. Before that, she held posts as political director and state secretary at the German foreign office. She also held multiple positions at the German embassy in Moscow. Learn more about her experience here or follow her on Twitter here.
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