Crunch time: Germany and Europe after Mattis

With James Mattis gone, it has become far more difficult to engage in damage control in transatlantic relations

For Berlin, the recent departure of James Mattis as US secretary of defence undermined the White House’s capacity to understand Europe. The US military’s experience in cooperating with allies across the Atlantic – in both the defence of NATO territory and joint out of area operations – will now have less influence on the Trump administration’s policy and decision-making than it once did. The administration’s appreciation of this cooperation will also diminish. Operations conducted in coalitions with allies have long had value for US policymakers and military commanders: even when the United States would have been perfectly able to act alone, acting in this way has provided missions with additional legitimacy and credibility.

With Mattis gone, it has become far more difficult to engage in damage control in transatlantic relations. His departure comes at a time when President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces from Syria could have serious consequences for Europe. The president does not care about the dangers the decision poses to Syrians or other people in the Middle East, which National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be unable to fully offset. Meanwhile, trust between Europe and America is quickly collapsing and will take time to rebuild. Trump could soon make further unilateral decisions on Israel-Palestine or Afghanistan, each directly or indirectly affecting security and defence policy in Europe.

These changes have particular significance for Germany and the German political class. Against the background of Trump’s attacks on German interests and policies, the retreat of Mattis adds to a series of challenges in German-American relations that includes trade policy and the US threat to target German exports specifically, as well the White House’s decision to single out Germany for its underperformance on NATO’s two percent of GDP spending target and its alleged exposure to Russian domination through gas imports. Thus, there is a growing feeling in Berlin that the US government has set out to weaken the European Union and target Germany as its cornerstone. In this sense, Mattis’ departure does not change Europe’s principal strategic calculations. Rather, it underlines Europe’s urgent need for a policy that can deal with the consequences of US unilateralism.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government still seeks to limit the damage to transatlantic relations within established parameters. The Grand Coalition she leads has decided to increase defence spending to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024, federal tax revenue allowing. At the same time, the chancellor and key cabinet members have intensified their efforts to communicate Germany’s commitments to NATO, the EU, and bilateral relationships – especially that with France.

Germany has exhausted the traditional means of moving forward by employing an artifice of European integration

The German government has taken a similar approach to economic diplomacy, seeking to ease tension by indicating its readiness compromise on transatlantic trade and by stressing the value of German investments and manufacturing to the US economy, not least the jobs market. All these steps reflect a reluctance to overreact, overspend, or otherwise overcommit during unpredictable times. Berlin still seems to expect transatlantic relations to rebound to some version of the pre-Trump state of play, which had its share of disputes but was governed by the United States’ overarching commitments as a strategic actor for and in Europe.

Yet with every disruptive event, decision, or personnel change in the White House, the question of how much longer Berlin can sustain this approach becomes more pressing. German leaders increasingly wonder whether decisions to duck, take cover, and muddle through are becoming counterproductive. These issues loom even larger at a time when there are mounting challenges to the chancellor’s domestic position and international standing, and the coalition she leads appears to be on the verge of a breakdown (due to the rapid erosion of the political centre in recent elections).

Neither Germany nor Europe seems prepared to spell out what Merkel means when she says that “we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands”. For the Germans, this would imply an end to the peace dividend, safely embedded within a neighbourhood of friends whose doors are open to German products and who have a strong appreciation for the German way of life. Worse, the Germans cannot hide behind Europe this time, because German indecision blocks further European integration. Europe cannot act before Germany decides on its role and ambitions within the EU, on its commitments to the continent’s future, and on the road map for implementing its European aims. The EU’s largest and strongest member state has to move first, and to do so in a predictable fashion that allows its allies to decide and act accordingly. Efforts to keep Europe together – in line with another of the chancellor’s mantras – will not succeed by simply avoiding friction, but will require strengthened European capabilities in key areas of the economy (particularly finance), home affairs, and security.

Germany has exhausted the traditional means of moving forward by employing an artifice of European integration. The introduction of an EU foreign minister and diplomatic service has not created one European voice on principal policy issues – and nor will the adoption of qualified majority voting for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Equally, Germany’s commitment to represent European interests during its term on the UN Security Council will not overcome Europe’s strategic absenteeism. Rather, to take their destiny into their own hands, Germany and Europe must define how they will shape international affairs, specifying how and when they will act. Evidently, policy announcements from Berlin will not automatically change the world or push Europe forward. Nonetheless, without such signals, Germany and Europe will remain mired in procrastination.

In security and defence policy, Germany should assign clear meaning to the various European initiatives it has agreed to join. Under the European Intervention Initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron, Germany should specify its commitments by stating that the project is the main mechanism for projecting European military power, and that German forces will prepare to participate in missions under the leadership of France. Under the Permanent Structured Cooperation initiative, Germany should make clear that it aims to commonly develop, fund, and operate European capabilities that have significant military value. Berlin should specify that such assets will be staffed under a European flag, making sure that there is no national veto on their use in the context of the EU or NATO.

In territorial defence, Germany must decide how it will provide credible conventional deterrence against attacks on EU or NATO territory – established and operated by Europeans as a basis for continued US support, and coupled to America’s nuclear capabilities. This decision would imply substantial new investment in the German armed forces’ capacity to repel a massive land invasion. Such investment should combine with invitations to Germany’s EU neighbours to participate in a common territorial defence structure that operates within the framework of NATO and the EU.

This approach would impose a significant fiscal burden on Germany. Taking responsibility for one’s fate does not come free. To help shoulder the burden, Germany and France should launch a European defence procurement initiative capable of meeting specifics demands from both European countries and their partners while benefiting from economies of scale. At the same time, Berlin needs to adopt a realist approach towards arms exports.

As challenging as such policy changes would be for government priorities and budget considerations, the true difficulty of the task lies in winning support from the public. The German political class has preferred not to alert voters any more than necessary to the fact that their country now effectively borders the Mediterranean, Turkey, and Russia via the EU. How can most Germans recognise this fact when political rhetoric otherwise treats the EU as an instrument of German policy? At some point, German voters will need to understand that they must either endorse a more European Germany or commit resources to more Germany in Europe. Tertium non datur.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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