DURING DONALD TRUMP’S presidential campaign, it seemed impossible to predict what kind of foreign policy he might pursue once in office. On the one side, there were the portents of radical change: Trump lauded Vladimir Putin and criticized allies from Angela Merkel to Enrique Peña Nieto. He called NATO obsolete and railed against free trade. There was reason to think that a President Trump would steer an isolationist course, undertake radical changes to American alliances and attempt to dismantle the liberal world order.
There were also signs of continuity, however. After some of his most radical statements, Trump would claim that he had been misunderstood. It was NATO’s strategic focus, not the alliance itself, that was obsolete, his team would assure reporters. He was not opposed to free trade but simply in favor of fair trade, he would explain. On the whole, the impression that lingered was, more than anything else, one of radical uncertainty.
This has not really changed since Trump moved into the White House. The president has continued to make laudatory statements about Putin—yet seemingly avoided forging closer ties with Russia. He has continued to criticize American allies—yet failed to act on those criticisms. Finally, he has expressed support for dictators like Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and seemingly accepted that Bashar al-Assad would stay in power in Syria—only to bomb Assad’s troops a few days later. For now, uncertainty and unpredictability remain the hallmarks of American foreign policy in the age of Donald Trump.
For countries like Germany, whose safety has long depended on America’s military might and strategic reliability, this is a glaring wake-up call: They need to rethink their foreign policy from the ground up.
For decades Germany has, for all intents and purposes, outsourced its own security to the United States. While the Bundeswehr would have made a significant contribution if Germany had come under attack, it was clear that the country’s security ultimately depended on NATO and the American nuclear umbrella. With Trump casting doubt on his willingness to come to his allies’ defense, and potentially willing to accommodate Putin, Germany’s security is therefore looking less secure than ever.
And yet Germany’s small and cohesive foreign-policy community seems to be choosing the course of maximal inaction. While concerns about the implications of Trump’s ascent run deep, most German politicians, civil servants and think tankers have sought to maximize continuity with the policies of the past. The dominant approach has been to wait and see. And so even those lone voices that call for change envisage reforms that are in the realm of the miniscule: according to one senior member of Germany’s timorous foreign-policy community, the right response to Trump’s rise is to revisit a recent policy paper that advocates closer cooperation with France in matters of border security and the sharing of biometric information. According to another senior member, it is to equip the member states of the European Union with better tools to tackle cybersecurity.
The absence of proposals for real change has been most striking in the area of military policy. There would seemingly be good reason to expect that a country would scramble to beef up its own defenses when a friendly superpower that has long guaranteed its security calls into doubt its willingness to protect erstwhile allies. There would seemingly be even better reason to expect increased military spending when the new president of this superpower has repeatedly linked his willingness to continue defending the country with its willingness to spend a substantial portion of its budget on its own defense—something the country has failed to do for many years. And yet Germany seems to be doing nothing of the sort.
On paper, Germany is committed to spending 2 percent of GDP on its military by 2024. But the current budget, announced with much pride and fanfare, only raises military spending from 1.12 percent to 1.18 percent—a rate of increase that barely puts the country on track to meet its target by 2030. Even that seems unlikely. As Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister, put the point at the latest NATO summit, it is “completely unrealistic” that Germany will spend so much of its budget on the military: “I don’t know any German politician,” he said, “who would claim that is reachable nor desirable.”
THERE ARE good reasons why German foreign-policy makers are determined to maintain a close relationship with the United States. Since World War II, the erstwhile enemies have built a close relationship that includes both a formal political alliance and strong personal links. As a constitutive part of the wider transatlantic partnership, it is one of the many building blocks of an international order that sets global norms, provides public goods and protects human rights. German politicians thus see their close alliance with the United States both as a cornerstone of their foreign policy and as a key contribution to a stable regime of international norms.