President George HW Bush called for Germany to be a Partner in Leadership with the United States in May 1989, six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. He did this in anticipation of the changes that were building, sensing that with the end of the Cold War, Germany would be the central power in Europe. Chancellor Helmut Kohl was reluctant to take on this role, and this reluctance has characterized Germany ever since. Today, the United States looks to Germany to provide leadership to a Europe adrift. Germany stands as one of the few successful countries in Europe with a stable leadership while France and Britain seem shadows of the countries they were in 1990, with the European Union unable to fill the gap.
A recent Pew poll found that 72 percent of Americans view Germany as a reliable ally (24 percent, very reliable) still trailing Britain, which 85 percent found to be reliable. While the Pew survey revealed that Americans still think of World War II and the Holocaust when they are asked about the most important event in the relationship over the past 75 years (28 percent mention the fall of the Berlin Wall), the U.S. public tends to have a positive overall image of Germany. Polls also confirm that Americans, to the extent that they think about Germany, would like to see it play a larger leadership role, including in the military area.
The strategic context that provided the glue to German-U.S. relations is much weaker than it was 26 years ago. Germany is no longer the significant military partner that it was. In the last year before it unified, 1989, West Germany spent $33.9 billion annually on defense (2.8 percent of GDP), with armed forces numbering close to 500,000 personnel. In 2016, Germany will spend about $36 billion (or 1.2 percent of GDP) on defense, with armed forces totaling less than 200,000 personnel. The U.S. military presence in Germany is now a small fraction of what it was during the Cold War.
This is not a contrast between a German Venus and an American Mars but rather one between Mercury (the Roman god of commerce) and Mars. Germany is now the world’s preeminent geo-economic power while the United States continues to be traditional geostrategic military power, which causes strains between Berlin and Washington over the use of military force. It results in Americans regarding Germany as a free-rider on U.S. military power.
Given that Germany is now a fully sovereign country, it is not surprising that it has been a partner on some issues and not on others. Germany opposed both the Iraq War and the intervention in Libya but was a key partner in NATO enlargement and has provided forces in Afghanistan. It has been a key player in the Iran negotiations and in shaping Western reactions to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
On Greece and the eurozone crisis, Germany has led, but not always to Washington’s liking. There is a general sense in Washington that German policy has not been broad or strategic enough and has instead been driven by parochial interests and a limited view of economic policy.
German economic interests are now global and China is now its fourth largest trading partner after France, the United States, and the Netherlands, with Germany accounting for nearly 50 percent of Europe’s exports to China. Germany’s willingness to go with the U.K. and other European countries against U.S. wishes to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is viewed in Washington as another example of how Germany’s geo-economic interests are replacing old alliances.
Iran is another case where geo-economic Germany sees both a commercial and strategic logic in a reopening of the Iranian market. Berlin was a key player in the P5 + 1 group of nations, and it will be one of the first Western powers to reenter the Iranian market after the nuclear agreement goes into effect. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has already visited Tehran with a delegation of German CEOs and as one report noted, “the lure of the Iran market was no doubt one factor that European nations and the United States weighed in deciding to support a deal.”
So Germany has been a partner in some cases and an independent player in others, but is still regarded in the United States as a rather reluctant and still limited leader. It is no longer a big Switzerland but it is still not the partner in leadership President Bush and his successors have hoped it to be.
Stephen F. Szabo is the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. Follow him at @stephenfszabo.