Between America and China: Germany Will Have To Decide

Donald Trump’s ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell complains about how the German government is putting the United States on a level with the Chinese communist dictatorship. Wasn’t it Grenell’s own president who sang the praises of the autocrat Xi Jinping?

It cannot be said that German-American relations are experiencing a phase of tranquility and harmony right now. The opposite is the case. The list of arguments is long and getting longer, beginning with trade policy and ending with the role of Chinese telecommunications companies. It is no surprise that a significant majority of Germans think the relationship is bad, and that America is no longer their favorite ally. It is anyone’s guess how much self-righteousness was part of that evaluation.

There are several reasons for the current rumbling and political rupture of a relationship hat has been closely intertwined for many years. There are structural reasons that have to do with global changes since 1989 and 1990. And there are reasons that fall under the heading of “Donald Trump.” It is easy to get the impression that the president has come to recognize Germany as one of his main adversaries.

At any rate, Germany, its politicians and its government are getting their just deserts at any opportunity, no matter what the cause may be for a scolding. However, the backlash persists. As noted above, many Germans do not view the United States as a haven for freedom or a well-meaning hegemony anymore. Instead, Germans see a country run by a rude nationalist who cares very little about alliances.

The latest controversy around German Minister for Economic Affairs and Energy Peter Altmaier made it clear how quickly banal comments can cause a stir against this background. Almaier commented on television about Chinese network equipment provider Huawei and questioned whether Huawei should be engaged in setting up the 5G network. The government is not ruling out that possibility, so Altmaier pointed out that even after the U.S. National Security Agency wiretapping was discovered, Berlin did not consider boycotting American technology companies.

A Cold War Is Coming

This provoked an angry reaction from the American ambassador in Berlin. He said the comparison to China amounted to an “insult to the thousands of American troops who help ensure Germany’s security.” Ambassador Grenell alleged that Altmaier and other German politicians were establishing a “moral equivalency” between communist China and democratic America. With this, the ambassador, who, like his boss, is known for roughly intervening, deployed the heavy artillery. One could even say Grenell is infamous for this kind of behavior.

Well, in fact there cannot be moral equivalency, however tempting that might seem to some people in politics and the economy; the same goes for Russia, by the way. Germany is tied to America through so much more than it is tied to China: Historically, politically, culturally and so on; not to mention social values. And in the coming new cold war between China and America, where technology is not the least of many battlefields, Germany will have to decide sooner or later whose side it is on. It will not be able to choose the side of dictatorship. However, it would be helpful if Trump’s administration and its trumpeters didn’t drive Germany and other allies into the arms of the enemy, or at least not away from America with its politics and riotous rhetoric.

Yes, Germans as well as other Europeans are still dependent on the United States from a security policy point of view. That dependency makes them vulnerable and restricts their room to maneuver. And yes, Germany has to do more for its own security and that of its close partners. But to act as if American troops in Europe were a kind of Caritas organization, driven only by affecting selflessness, would be a bit awkward. The United States is also pursuing its own interests through NATO, an alliance that was and is a great thing for both sides.

Maybe it would be wise if both sides coordinated their policies on China. Maybe it would be wise if Washington were to explain to its allies what the American strategy and the goals toward China truly are. In any case, a policy of unpredictability does not provide a steady base for heavy artillery like Ambassador Grenell has deployed recently.

It was President Trump who commented admiringly on Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader and communist in chief. Actually, this was “an insult to the millions of Chinese citizens denied basic freedoms and unjustly imprisoned by the CCP,” as the ambassador remarked. But of course, Ambassador Grenell does not wish to appear disturbed by the adulation of Xi from the man in the White House.

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