When Donald Trump’s grandfather moved from Kallstadt, a small town in southwest Germany, to New York, he probably never imagined in his wildest dreams that his grandson would become the 45th president of the United States. Does Trump’s German heritage signal any advantage for the future US-German relationship? Hardly.

During the election campaign, a strong relationship with Germany (and, indeed, with Europe and the rest of the world) was of only very minor relevance for the Trump camp. If Germany was mentioned by Trump, it was usually in a disparaging way. For instance, the Republican candidate called German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s immigration policies “insane” and claimed that the crime rate in Germany had risen because of the refugees in the country – which is verifiably not true, but resonated with Trump’s supporters.

The German establishment reacted to the election of Donald Trump with much of the same surprise as the rest of the world, with a poll of German citizens giving him just four percent of the vote leading up to the election. Merkel has offered her cooperation, however, on the condition that Donald Trump respects "shared values" such as freedom and the rule of law, and applies them to all, regardless of gender, creed or background.

Threat for the transatlantic partnership?

Berlin feels completely in the dark after Donald Trump’s election. Even though German officials tried to engage Trump’s foreign policy advisors, they could not identify the right person. A few years ago, politicians in the United States complained that they did not know who to phone in order to “call in Europe”; today it is the other way around. Trump’s challenge of basic pillars of US foreign and defence policy causes real concern in Berlin. Among other things, he wants Germany and other NATO-allies to pay for protection by the USA. Trump’s attitudes towards Russia also raises a lot of concerns. Beyond foreign policy, Trump’s positions on free trade, globalization and climate change lead are top of mind in policy debates. Although he has taken a more conciliatory tone after the election, Trump’s personal comments may make it hard for less diplomatic politicians to engage with the Trump administration. 

Outgoing President Barack Obama is visiting Berlin this week (16-18 Nov) for the last time as leader of the free world. During the last 8 years, Merkel and Obama forged a strong and warm partnership, one that even survived the revelation that American spies had listened in on her mobile phone calls. The problem now is that no one knows what will happen next. Commentators in the United States have called Merkel the “liberal west’s last defender”. Under pressure from all sides for her policies, it is not clear if she will be willing to go into a fourth term as German chancellor. The question is: with Merkel out, would Germany and Europe have a strong replacement counterpart to what many call an unpredictable 45th US president? 

A wake-up call for the German establishment

Another important implication of the US election for Germany is domestic. 2017 will be a busy year for German politicians. Apart from the elections for Federal President (a more ceremonial position in Germany), national elections are scheduled for September. German politicians are concerned that Donald Trump's victory can be seen as indicative of the increasing success of right-wing and populist parties throughout Europe. In Germany, the established parties are losing votes to the anti-migrant, anti-European, anti-Muslim ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD). Every German party is looking for solutions on how to cope with the AfD – so far without any success. A US president who continues to condemn free trade and free movement of labour will make it difficult for those who want to convince disappointed and angry voters to stay with them.

Despite the harsh rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic, many are still hopeful that Realpolitik will succeed. German political veterans expect a “rocky start” with Trump but assume that his bark will be different from his bite. The transatlantic partnership is still the decisive pillar of German foreign policy and its export-oriented economy. German officials and the business community in the country will now try to manage the new uncertainties. They will try to identify common interests with the new administration and the right people to talk to in the United States to ensure they can continue to invest in America and sell their products to the US market. 

Christoph Mielke
Christoph Mielke

Christoph Mielke is a director in APCO Worldwide’s Brussels office where he leads the health care practice. Read More