Ambassador Detlev Ruenger, consul general of Germany in Atlanta, spoke at the law firm of Miller & Martin. Here, he's flanked by Peter Halpaus of IFF Inc., left, and Eike Jordan, who helped open the German-American Chamber of Commerce of the Southern U.S. Inc. in the 1970s.

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have so far been unable to find personal chemistry in line with the close ties between their countries. 

At their first meeting in the Oval Office, Mr. Trump’s attempts to make light of U.S. wiretapping of European leaders fell flat, and he all-too-visibly failed to shake Ms. Merkel’s hand during a photo op. (The U.S. president claimed later he couldn’t hear her request.) 

The viral headlines that encounter generated meant all eyes would be trained on their reunion at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, this week. 

In a brief meeting Thursday, the two leaders did manage to consummate a handshake in front of the cameras, but their stilted photos did nothing to stave off further online commentary. 


For those working on the front lines of the transatlantic alliance, however, the depth and breadth of collaboration goes much deeper than mannerisms and trivial headlines and tweets. 

Issues like commerce, security and trade drive the longstanding partnership, said Detlev Ruenger, consul general of Germany in Atlanta and a former ambassador of his country to Norway and Austria, during a wide-ranging interview conducted as part of Global Atlanta’s Consular Conversations series in March. 

By coincidence, he spoke on March 21, a day when his head of government was heavily criticized just a few blocks away and a few hours earlier by a man who has firmly allied himself with Mr. Trump: Nigel Farage, the former head of the U.K. Independence Party and a loud proponent of the Brexit campaign to leave the European Union

Mr. Farage had some pointed words about Ms. Merkel, making cracks about past German aggression that made some German members of the audience visibly uncomfortable at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta breakfast. 

“She’s the only person I know who is even more miserable in person than she appears to be in public,” Mr. Farage said at the time, recounting a luncheon meeting with Ms. Merkel. “I guess if you’ve grown up in East Germany living under the Stasi, perhaps there’s not too much to be happy about.”

He went on to say that Ms. Merkel’s worldview is “dominated by guilt about what Germany was 75 years ago,” which he said led to her stance on welcoming refugees and asylum seekers from Syria and beyond. That decision faced backlash from some EU states and helped fuel right-wing political movements in some areas of Europe. 

Mr. Ruenger, for his part, purposely skipped Mr. Farage’s breakfast event and avoided speaking much about the British firebrand’s, criticisms, but the German diplomat couldn’t resist taking one crack during the Global Atlanta luncheon event: 

“Mr. Farage is already history; Angela Merkel is still here.” 

His longer rebuttal came in the form of underscoring the importance of the EU experiment as an instrument of peace in light of threats to its integrity from Brexit and and nationalist movements. He predicted (rightly, it turns out) that France would shun the National Front in elections.

Mr. Ruenger acknowledged that the EU was brought about early on by the French and British response to Germany’s history of aggression, but that’s a reason to praise, not question, the bloc’s achievements. 

“The European Union (and its precursors) was an immediate consequence out of two world wars in Europe, and I think it was done in a good way. The bad thing is that people tend to forget what we have achieved,” Mr. Ruenger said. 

Trade Tension

People also forget which aspects of policy the 28 member states have handed over to the bloc, he said. 

Responding to the U.S. president’s narrative that Germany actively works to keep the euro artificially low, benefiting from weakness in the euro zone to keep its export engine humming, Mr. Ruenger was incredulous. 

Trade policy is handled at the EU level, Mr. Ruenger added, a fact that Mr. Trump neglects as he harps on Germany’s large and “unfair” trade surplus with the U.S.

“A trade surplus is not a good thing per se,” Mr. Ruenger said. “Trust me on that: the German government did not create this. Germany has always been a very export-oriented economy.”

He pointed to Germany’s system of vocational training, which produces skilled workers through three-year apprenticeship programs in a variety of fields. The resulting efficiency allows its small and medium-sized companies to compete globally, Mr. Ruenger said. 

While serving as ambassador to Norway, Mr. Ruenger saw unexpected evidence of this famed German “mittelstand” in action. He once wondered why he was invited to an offshore energy trade show — given that Germany is not a ship-building nation — until he saw all he small components manufacturers setting up near the larger firms.

“I learned again the lesson that there are many small, many medium-sized and big companies in Germany still around, hidden somewhere in small villages somewhere in southwest Germany, who have the competence to produce goods and sell things on a world market,” he said. 

That just happens to be how Germany has grown in the industrial age — an anomaly as a high-wage country that still depends heavily on exports and manufacturing. 

“This diversity is a trademark, and German companies are successful in this area. Government has had nothing to do with that, and believe me, the exchange rate of the euro, the way the euro has weakened in the past years, is something that is very controversial in Germany.”

EU Reform? 

Pressed on the idea of reforming the European Union, however, he did concede that there was a conundrum at the heart of the euro zone at the currency’s outset that still hasn’t been addressed. 

For the euro to work across economies of varying development levels, he said, the euro zone would need more political unity — complete with a ministry of finance.

“Right now we don’t have that,” he said, noting that while there is an independent European Central Bank, the European Council and Parliament still approve the EU budget. and countries maintain their own financial policies.   

The inequities between members also created some private-sector incentives that exacerbated the euro crisis. 

Mr. Ruenger painted a picture of shared blame for the woes of Greece and other members. Yes, German, French and Spanish banks, among others, lent to these nations seeking higher yields, but the receiving nations also happily took the money and invested it often times in political gain rather than productivity, he said. Then the bubble burst. 

Still, he noted, the EU has evolved dramatically from its role as an economic entity linking a few of the continent’s powerhouse economies to a “body of policy coordination” on issues ranging from foreign affairs, law, agriculture and more, with varying degrees of integration. 

“It has fundamentally changed in its content and in its quality,” from its origins in the European Coal and Steel Community 60-plus years ago. 

NATO, Migration and Aging Societies

Now, the more pressing concerns for Europe are security, migration and competitiveness as societies age, Mr. Ruenger said. 

Mr. Trump, speaking in Poland before his visit with Ms. Merkel this week, gave a long-awaited affirmation of the U.S. commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all. He had reportedly removed a similar comment from his speech at the NATO summit in Brussels in 2017. He had previously called the alliance “obsolete.”

“The United States has demonstrated not merely with words but with its actions that we stand firmly behind Article 5, the mutual defense commitment,” Mr. Trump said in a speech, according to the New York Times. 

Mr. Trump has made a point of lecturing NATO’s members about living up to their commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on national defense. 

Mr. Ruenger said Germany had reaffirmed its commitment at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales and was working toward it, but he noted that expenditures come in various forms and that the politics of military spending are always challenging. 

“We stand to this, and we are working to increase our share and expenditure,” Mr. Ruenger said. 

The broader point, he said, should be highlighting the value of the NATO partnership. 

“We had, in the past decades, a number of issues which in other circumstances might well have evolved into military confrontations, and the very existence of reliable and trustful NATO Western defense alliance prevented this. NATO is one of our big success stories after the second World War, as is the European Union.”

Some say the migration crisis of 2015 was made worse by Ms. Merkel’s openness to refugees and asylum seekers fleeing Syria. Mr. Ruenger said the issue has undoubtedly created challenges for policy makers but that the chancellor herself said things couldn’t go on like this. 

“On the other hand, to see someone drown at your doorstep is not an option,” he said.

Even with inbound numbers drastically reduced in 2016, the integration of some 900,000 migrants into Germany has been difficult, he said. The political institutions of the bloc will have to come up with solutions, especially since many are still making dangerous crossings of the Mediterranean from North Africa, many driven by visions of a more prosperous future. 

“They come by the hundreds of thousands, and Europe has to find an answer to this challenge, but I cannot give you this answer right now.” 

This comes on top of competitiveness issues the EU is facing, from high youth unemployment to the rise of competitors like China. 

That’s one reason trade between allies is so important, said Mr. Ruenger, who highlighted German investment as a boon to the Southeast U.S., the regional hub of German manufacturing investment in the country. 

“It’s here in the Southeast for a number of reasons, having a lot to do with the business-friendly environment here,” he said. 

German firms like luxury auto maker BMW are helping address the skills gap in the region. 

“When I visit companies, there are usually no complaints at all. The only problem virtually all companies face is to find qualified labor.”

Apprenticeship programs are addressing this issue while taking into account the particularities of the American education system, Mr. Ruenger said. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...