‘Why Germany?’ Trump’s strange fixation vexes experts
It was a moment Germans might call a Katastrophe.
No translation needed.
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At what was supposed to be a simple breakfast meeting, President Donald Trump kicked off this week’s annual NATO summit with a televised tirade belittling Germany as “captive to Russia” over its energy policy and sneering at the country’s military spending levels.
Even by Trump’s standards, his broadsides against one of America’s key military and economic partners was startling, and it renewed alarms about his commitment to a close alliance with Europe as a whole. But it was also just the latest evidence of Trump’s seeming fixation with Europe’s largest power, a longtime U.S. ally he has denounced with increasing frequency.
In recent months, Trump has complained that he sees too many German cars on American streets. He has falsely charged that crime is spiking in the country. He has reportedly complained about the size of America’s decades-long troop presence in the country. And as German Chancellor Angela Merkel battles a political crisis over immigration, he seemed to take pleasure in seeing “the people of Germany … turning against their leadership.”
All of which has left observers on both sides of the Atlantic wondering, “Why Germany?”
“I wish we knew,” said Julie Smith, who advised former Vice President Joe Biden on foreign policy. “Germany, hands down, gets more attacks than any other European ally. For one reason or another, the hits keep on coming.”
Theories abound about the reason for Trump’s German fixation — all the more surprising given his own German ancestry — and there may be no single answer. They range from Trump’s seeming belief that Germany has grown wealthy by mooching off the U.S. to the notion that he resents strong women like Merkel, who also happened to be one of President Barack Obama’s closest allies.
Trump supporters say the concern is overblown, and that the Republican president is just giving Germany a healthy dose of “tough love” to make it more resilient against threats from countries like Russia.
Whatever the impetus, Trump’s swipes at Berlin are further straining ties between the Trump administration and Europe — to the certain delight of Moscow, which has long sought to divide the United States and Europe.
Some analysts say Trump believes Germany has exploited the benefits of its longtime alliance with the U.S. and its key role in Europe’s economic union.
As Trump signaled Wednesday, he’s particularly annoyed that Germany, a wealthy nation with a robust economy, is not among the handful of countries in NATO who spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense, a threshold long agreed to by members of the military alliance.
Trump also frequently complains that the U.S. has a trade deficit in goods with Germany of roughly $65 billion. And he has ripped Merkel for maintaining one of Europe’s most welcoming policies towards refugees from Africa and the Middle East.
“The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition,” Trump tweeted on June 18. “Crime in Germany is way up. Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!”
On Wednesday, Trump surprised fellow world leaders in Brussels by tearing into Germany’s pursuit of the Nord Stream 2 project, a planned pipeline under the Baltic Sea that would bring Russian natural gas to Germany.
On each of Trump’s complaints, the Germans counter that Trump’s facts are mistaken or exaggerated. In many cases, experts agree.
On NATO spending, Germany has committed to reaching the 2 percent threshold by 2024, and remains a steadfast military partner of the United States. Thousands of U.S. troops have been based in Germany in the wake of World War II, and Germans have played a significant role in NATO’s post-2001 mission in Afghanistan.
Economists also caution against putting too much meaning on the goods-related trade deficit, saying that it’s just one aspect of a critical trade relationship with a major European economic engine.
On crime and immigration, meanwhile, statistics show that crime is at a 25-year-low in Germany, despite the influx of migrants.
The Obama administration also criticized Nord Stream 2, but the Trump team has been especially vociferous, reportedly threatening to tie Germany’s moves on the initiative to future trade deals and tariffs involving the United States.
The Germans counter that American officials’ true motive is to get Berlin to rely more on U.S. energy exports.
The timing of Trump’s outburst — sitting across a table from a surprised-looking NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg — was especially alarming to many observers because Trump is to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday amid concern that he is too close to the autocratic Russian leader.
Trump suggested that the Nord Stream 2 project will mean that Germany is paying “billions and billions of dollars” to Russia, “the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against.”