US Elections Untangled – EP 14: German foreign policy on the ballot (with Niklas Helwig)

2 experts


Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.

US Elections Untangled – EP 14: German foreign policy on the ballot (with Niklas Helwig)

The German-US relationship has gone from friendly to acrimonious under president Trump, and now Germany is anxious to see if the November elections will bring about a sea change in Washington. The results will have profound implications for Germany.

“The German foreign policy model is very much on the ballot in these US elections,” says Leading Researcher Niklas Helwig from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“If it’s another four years of Trump, that means Germany will have to engage much more internationally, and because of Germany’s very hesitant foreign policy approach that is a very difficult task.”

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[recording starts]

Maria Annala: [00:00:01]: Welcome to US Elections Untangled, a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.


An audio recording of Donald Trump: [00:00:10]: From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it is going to be only America First, America First.


An audio recording of Joe Biden: Donald’s Trump’s brand of America First has too often led to America alone.


 Annala: [00:00:34]: Hello everyone and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I’m Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, and I’m going to be your host throughout this podcast series. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about the relationship between the US and Germany. Our guest today is leading researcher Niklas Helwig from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.


[Introductory music concludes.]


Annala: [00:01:04]: Hi Niklas, thanks for being here.


Helwig: [00:01:06]: Thank you for having me.


Annala: [00:01:07]: These past almost four years have been painful in the German-US relationship. Why do you think the relationship has been so difficult under President Trump when it was so much better under President Obama? Is it personal?


Helwig: [00:01:21]: Well yes, I think you have a good point there. Obviously there are many different facets to the relationship between the US and Germany but I think it’s worth us starting from the top in this case, especially to look at the personal relationship between Trump and Merkel because actually Angela Merkel had a very good relationship with Trump’s predecessor Obama. Of course they also had their ups and downs but, especially to us, it really showed that they have a similar leadership style. They are both policy nerds, if you will. They love policy details. They read their briefing books from cover to cover so their leadership style was very similar and that’s why they had a very good connection. That, of course, helps the whole administration to administration relationship and it’s fair to say that this was not the same under Trump. It’s not that Merkel didn’t try, especially in the first year of the Trump presidency in 2017, she tried to appeal to Trump also on a personal level. For example, Trump is known for his TV show, The Apprentice, and it happens that Germany has a very good, occasional job training scheme which is very successful in Germany. So what she did was try to connect with Trump on this level and pitched stronger cooperation on job training between the US and Germany. She tried to pitch that to Trump to try to appeal to his TV persona, so to say. Another very prominent example was that she invited Ivanka Trump, the daughter of the President, to a high-level female summit in Germany where Ivanka sat together with Christine Lagarde and Merkel, and other female politicians, on a podium. You can really see that she tried to play the game but it didn’t really translate into better cooperation.


Annala: [00:03:21]: Yes, I guess Trump is just such a different personality. Like you said, Merkel and Obama reading policy books from cover to cover whereas Trump allegedly refused to read even a two-page briefing. That’s a very, very different type of approach to governing that Trump and Merkel have. Some people also claim that Trump is misogynous, that she just hates seeing women in power and has a problem with powerful women. I can’t help but wonder if part of the bad relationship, on a personal level, has to do with the fact that Angela Merkel is one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, female politician in the world.


Helwig: [00:04:09]: Yes, and I think it’s well known, and you’ve covered it as well on other episodes of your podcast, that he seemingly had a good relationship with other “strong men” of other countries. For example, Vladimir Putin from Russia or Erdogan from Turkey. He seemed to get along well with those more authoritarian types of leaders and if you think about it, Germany is really the polar opposite when it comes to that. Obviously Germany is a democracy, so that’s a big difference, but the Germany political culture is also very much consensus-oriented. For good reason, since the Second World War, there is a disdain to showing strong, patriotic emotions and leadership. It’s foreign policy is based on diplomacy and cooperation, not so much on coercion and military strength. You can well imagine that it was difficult for Trump to find a connection to a German Chancellor which is just so different in the leadership style. It didn’t appeal to Trump at all and that gave a bad start to the whole relationship.


Annala: [00:05:23]: Yes, the way you describe it, it sounds like also Germany and the US, as countries, have sort of polar opposite personalities, like with Trump’s “America first.” Even more than Trump and “America first,” the US is very aware of its own military accolades and its standing as the sole superpower, how it’s so big and powerful. As you explained, Germany has good reason to avoid appearing like they are the big, strong power that is going to come and kick everybody’s butts. So also very different personalities on the level of the entire country almost. That’s fascinating. Is Trump alone in his criticism of Germany or do other American politicians share at least some of his critical views?


Helwig: [00:06:19]: I think Trump is not alone in his criticism and there’s some more widespread criticism against Germany in Washington DC, and Trump picked this up and amplified it. For example, some points where you can see that are concerns towards Germany, on both sides of the aisle in Washington DC, are with Germany’s low defensive expenditure. This has been a matter of concern already under the Obama presidency and those before,  to invest much more in defense. The last defense increase was, for example, in Germany 10%, year after year. They are now close to 1.6% of GDP in terms of military spending so they are closing in on the NATO goal of 2% spending. It is something that is also going to continue in the future administrations of the US, this discussion about burden sharing. Another aspect where Germany has been criticized in the past is with its export surplus. Germany is exporting much more than it is imported and also to the US, where the export surplus is around 60 billion euros per year. This is also a concern for some economists who are not “Trumpists,” so to say, and also there are discussions about whether this is really a problem or Germany does other things too. For example, German companies invest a lot in the US so it is not a one-sided discussion but something that is certainly being discussed in the transatlantic relationship. One very recent discussion between the two countries is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline which Germany is building with Russia in the Baltic Sea. You can see strong criticism in Congress from the Republican Party but also from the Democrats, and Senators from both parties have actually sanctioned the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. I’m not making any judgment about whether this project is feasible or good but it’s clearly something that will stick with the transatlantic relationship looking forward. We have to be aware that it’s not only Trump but that there are real policy issues and differences between the two countries that we will have to look at in the future.


Annala: [00:09:11]: Yes, that’s definitely good to bear in mind. It’s no wonder that Trump especially picked up on the first two points because he is so vehemently opposed to trade imbalances. He wants the US to export more and import less and he seems to have this almost twisted idea of that meaning that the US is losing money. He looks at it from this very emotional perspective whenever trade isn’t balanced with an ally, or any country. Also the question of burden sharing is something very close to his heart. He really wanted to make his presidency the era when all the NATO partners had to start paying their share. He claims that other NATO countries owe the US money, which is not exactly how it works, but it’s a very nice populist way of selling it to people, to make it sound like a horrible thing. Those are like his pet peeves, so to speak, some of his favourite topics to get annoyed about so it’s no wonder that he’s been so aggressive about them.


[Break] Annala: [00:10:28]: US Elections Untangled.


Annala: [00:10:35]: The upcoming presidential election is watched closely around the world. What is at stake for Germany?


Helwig: [00:10:42]: There is a lot at stake for Germany. Historically, the transatlantic alliance has been one of the key pillars of German foreign and security policy. This doesn’t mean that there haven’t been ups and downs in this relationship but Germany’s foreign policy model is really based on a strong US leadership role in the world, and that spans different dimensions. The obvious one is security and defense policy, where German security is, to a large extent, based on a strong transatlantic alliance. If you, for example, talk to officials in the Germany Ministry of Defense, they will tell you that most of their military planning works via the NATO structures and alliances – the key security and defense framework. Germany has also been promoting EU security and defense, so the European Union dimension of those, but it sees the European Union rather as supplementary towards a strong NATO alliance. Security and defense is then one issue but it’s even more than this because Germany also very much bought into the idea of an international, multilateral order as it was championed by the United States, basically since the Second World War. For example, it strongly benefitted from free trade and the free and rule-based order as it is promoted by the World Trade Organization. So the multilateral order, as it was championed by the United States, is also very important for Germany’s economic model.


Annala: [00:12:33]: Now Trump isn’t championing it anymore.


Helwig: [00:12:35]: Exactly, and now in the last couple of years, Trump hasn’t championed it anymore. The US hasn’t been in support. On the contrary, when you look at the World Trade Organization for example, some of the US policies have been harmful towards the rule-based international order. Finally, I think for Germany the most important foreign policy objective is to keep European integration alive and also the European project alive. This is not necessarily directed connected to the United States but in the past, the United States has been a champion of European integration, it has supported it along the way. Now you have a US President that calls the EU “as bad as China but much smaller” and similar remarks, so you can see that he rather seeks to divide EU member states. That is also very boring, especially from a German perspective that relies on a strong European Union and this balance on the European continent.


Annala: [00:13:47]: Yes, I feel like, as you say, Trump is doing his best to create imbalance in Europe, like his recent decision to withdraw troops from Germany for example.


Helwig: [00:13:58]: Yes, that was certainly a major decision in the US-German relationship also, to reduce the troops by 30%, going from 36,000 to 24,000 in Germany. This sent quite a strong signal and especially there were some rumours of putting those troops in Poland and strengthening the bilateral relationship with Poland which caused some concern in Germany. There were also other examples in his presidency that were really concerning from a German point of view. For example, the US decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement. This was something that was very much representing the way Germany thinks about international relationships. It’s a perfect example of a multilateral deal struck to deal with the security situation in the Middle East, and to include the UN structures and the European Union as a negotiating body in those discussions. That was really something that was very much an example of how Germany sees international relations and that the US turned its back on this Iran nuclear deal was something of deep concern in Berlin.


Annala: [00:15:36]: So a lot of these recent developments seem to be directly connected to the Trump presidency and Trump’s leadership style and policy preferences. Are the Germans hoping that this is just a temporary phase? That things will go back to “normal” and the way they were before Trump became President.


Helwig: [00:16:00]: That’s certainly something you can hear in Berlin. People are hopeful they can back to the old days, back to a kind of Obama presidency. It’s not quite clear if that is possible and of course it depends on how the election outcome looks in the end. I think it’s fair to say that the German foreign policy model is very much on the ballot in this US election. If it’s another 4 years of Trump, it would mean that Germany would have to engage much more internationally, would have to show much more international responsibility. That is because of Germany’s very hesitant foreign policy approach, and it is a very difficult task to achieve.


Annala: [00:16:55]: What do you think will happen to the US-German relationship if Trump gets a second term?


Helwig: [00:17:01]: Well, we will definitely more efforts of Germany to adjust its policies towards a world where there’s no US leadership. I think for the last 4 years, I think they were, to some extent, counting on the fact that it was just an exceptional period but if Trump is re-elected, it would signify larger structural change. It would mean that Germany has to cope with a world where the US leadership is not there to the extent that it was previously. What does this mean for Germany? I guess the first instinct for Germany would be to turn towards the European level, that’s what Germany does first when it wants to deal with international situations, especially in this context. It would look at the problem through the European level and one particular aspect of this is, of course, the close Franco-Germany relationship. It would try to strengthen that even more than it is now, the relationship and cooperation on foreign and security policy with France. This could, for example, take the shape of a stronger cooperation within the European pillar of NATO. So NATO would still be there as a structural framework and Germany and France could maybe focus more on strengthening the European side of NATO. Maybe Germany would also become more ambitious about this idea of strategic autonomy and to increase some of the capabilities on the European side when it comes to military and defense issues. Again, we have seen some of the developments already in recent years. We have seen permanent structured cooperation. We have seen the European defense fund, but Germany was always betting a little bit on the fact that maybe in 4 years, we’ll be dealing with a completely different US. It won’t do that anymore but will maybe more ambitious on some of these European projects and will demand results coming out of it. All of this is very difficult for Germany, it doesn’t really have the strategic culture to play a strong leadership role, but it will have to adapt to this new reality when Trump wins a second election.


Annala: [00:19:32]: If he does.


Helwig: [00:19:34]: Yes, if, not when.


Annala: [00:19:37]: How about if Joe Biden wins, what would that mean for Germany?


Helwig: [00:19:42]: I guess first of all some champagne bottles would pop in Berlin because there would be some hope to get back to the old days, to an Obama 2.0 presidency. Again, the hope is there to go back to Obama 2.0 but German officials are also realistic that a Biden presidency now won’t be the same as the Obama presidency 4 or 5 years ago. There’s no turning back and the world has moved on, which also means that Germany has to deal with a different transatlantic relationship. One plus would of course be that Biden, from his whole foreign policy approach we know, would be much more cooperative with Germany. When you listen to his foreign policy advisor Tony Blinken, for example, he’s already announcing that Biden will return to these old alliances and work with partners around the world. There are, however, also some different positions between the possible Biden administration and Germany. Take for example Russia. Democrats have been very critical of Russia, especially since the 2016 election, so they are very tough on Russia while Germany has a bit of a more balanced approach towards them. Of course Germany has also changed its policies towards Russia in recent years since the 2014 Ukraine crisis – there are sanctions in place, for example. Overall though, they believe they also need to build cooperation and diplomacy together with Russia and there might be some differences in approach between a Biden administration and Germany foreign policy actors. I think the second big topic to watch under a Biden administration would be China. The Democratic Party warms up more and more to the fact that China is a systemic competitor as well and Germany remains very much in favour of close, especially economic, relations with China. I think where you can see this very well is looking at the German car industry. Last year, for the first time, German car manufacturers produced more cars in China than they produced in Germany – 5 million cars, so this economic relationship is extremely important and Germany would have a lot to lose if the trade war between the US and China continues. This would be something where Germany would also try to engage the new Biden administration and try to cooperate on the China issue. One thing one shouldn’t forget is that we also have elections in Germany next year, and Merkel already said that she won’t run for another term. We will definitely have a new leader and we will have to see if there some small changes to the foreign policy approach there, especially thinking about Russia, for example, and whether the new Chancellor has a new relationship towards Putin or wants to engage with Russia differently. Germany is also a moving object in this relationship.


Annala: [00:23:34]: Do you only anticipate small changes though? Is it also possible that Germany would do a complete U-turn and there would be a drastic change? Like in the US where the Democrats and Republicans are so far apart these days, when there’s a change in power, the change in thinking be very dramatic. Is there somebody in the German political ranks who would might rise to the rank of Chancellor and have a totally different approach to Merkel?


Helwig: [00:24:03]: German foreign policy is usually very much characterized by continuity. I think that one aspect that is going to be different is that Merkel has had a lot of experience, not just as a leader but also dealing with Putin. She knows by now his strategies, approaches, and foreign policies very well and has also had close connections with him personally. Of course, if she leaves the chancellery and someone else comes in, just by the fact that this new person doesn’t have the same experience might change the foreign policy also. If I can also answer your question of what kinds of personalities are on the ballot next year, just from the election mathematics, it’s quite likely that it will be a Conservative Chancellor. The Conservatives, Merkel’s CDU, haven’t nominated their candidate yet. Some of them, for example, Norbert Röttgen, who is the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in German parliament, is very hawkish towards Russia. He’s a foreign policy expert and knows the stakes, and he spoke out recently against the Nord Stream 2 project. Others have less of a foreign profile, like the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia Armin Laschet, and he has a much more economic view of some of these foreign policy issues. It’s not clear how he would act as a Chancellor but maybe he would be less hawkish than a candidate like Norbert Röttgen.


Annala: [00:25:52]: So a lot of things are up in the air. We don’t know who is going to be leading the US or Germany but to finish this off, could you describe one nightmare scenario and one optimistic scenario about what the 2020 elections and its results might mean for the US-German relationship?


Helwig: [00:26:15]: So the nightmare scenario from a German perspective would be if Trump wins, and if that would lead to further disintegration in Europe. We have already seen now that some EU member states, like Poland for example, see closer bilateral relationships with the US and we have also had Brexit and that special relationship you covered on your podcast between the US and the UK. A Trump win might also give tailwinds to nationalist movements in Europe and further increase tensions between European member states. Really, the disintegration of Europe is Germany’s biggest angst and it wants to avoid any more steps in that direction. A Trump win might be such a step and that’s a negative scenario.


Annala: [00:27:18]: How about a positive scenario?


Helwig: [00:27:20]: Well, a positive scenario is if Joe Biden wins the election and the Europeans and Americans can get to work on some of the most pressing international issues that we see today and have just been untouched in recent years. For example, climate change, the reform of the World Trade Organization, and also the China challenge, so to have a more cooperative approach. Maybe we won’t see eye-to-eye on all the detailed policies but at least to start finally talking with each other again – I think that would be a positive scenario from a German perspective.


Annala: [00:28:02]: Alright. Thank you so much for being here.


Helwig: [00:28:03]: Thank you for having me. This was fun.


Annala: [00:28:07]: Thanks for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We’ll be asking if the USA’s global leadership is coming to an end. Our guest will be Research Fellow Ville Sinkkonen from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.



[recording ends]