public diplomacy

How “America First” is Ruining US-German Relations

Trump’s foreign policy centers on “America First,” which is a drastic shift from the way the United States has handled foreign relations in the past. Over the past few decades, the United States has been the leader in building democracies, protecting the rights of minorities, and standing up for equality. Under the new policy, the United States would essentially withdraw from their hegemonic position by putting international issues on a lower priority than domestic ones and encouraging allies to increase their involvement in areas like defense and humanitarian aid, so the U.S. can decrease theirs.

This new structure of America First is arguably needed for the United States. The strategy of maintaining global leadership, supporting humanitarian interventions, and providing military operations cannot be sustained forever and has certainly taken a toll on our current financial and political circumstances. Domestically, America First is not in conflict with traditional American master narratives, such as American exceptionalism or good vs. evil, which makes it digestible and appropriate to internal audiences. From an inside prospective, it seems like it could work.

However, America First falls in the same trap as nearly all of Trump’s proposals: it speaks directly to his base and fails to recognize the variety of audiences. But instead of creating internal conflict and partisanship, with domestic audiences like many of his programs do, America First has a much broader reach. It represents our foreign policy and therefore has to be able to be tailored to abroad communities, which unfortunately, it cannot.

And while America First is generally not well-received by any ally, it is particularly in conflict with one of our strongest partners: Germany.  The America First narrative disrupts Germany’s view of America and traditional German narratives and will continue to deteriorate US-German relations, which have already declined over the past two years. A Pew study on US-German relations this past February found that the majority of Germans (56%) have a negative view of the relationship, encompassing Trump’s first year as president. In comparison, the same study cited that 93% of Germans had a positive view of the United States during Obama’s first year.

American And German Flag Pair On A Desk Over Defocused Background

How America First threatens this relationship is its break from America’s traditional narrative and role in relation to Germany and its endangerment of several key global master narratives from over the past generation:

Liberal World Order

America’s post-Cold War narrative focused on the strategic leadership of democracy in the Liberal World Order, where democracy, capitalism, and global values thrived. Under this global narrative, Germany prospered, directly benefitting from the free trade and liberal ideas.

America First, and other movements like Brexit, now threaten this foundation as seen through Trump’s withdrawal from key agreements, like the Paris Accord and the Pacific trade deal. Germany is now left alone on the democratic world stage, as Chancellor Merkel is labeled the new “leader of the free world,” despite Germany’s reluctance to accept the global position.

America First and the rise of Trump in general also endanger the Liberal World Order with the spread of populism as it rejects a global economy, minimizes support for marginalized groups, and thrives on fear and dissidence. The idea of populism even manifests itself through division – individuals feel betrayed by a liberal government favoring minorities or feel angered with “big government,” and therefore support individuals who act as a champion vowing to resolve this resentment.

Like many countries, Germany is struggling with this rise in populism as seen with the new far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. This internal conflict is only amplified by Trump’s successful win as it proves that populist leaders can gain the traction and votes to make populism possible, and the ideology challenges the Liberal World Order that Germany has known, and thrived under, since the Cold War.

Protective Big Brother

Similarly, the United States, during and after the Cold War, has protected Germany from the communists and has been a reliable partner and ally.

Trump is now shifting this view with America First by withdrawing America’s position in the global world order. This is especially disruptive to Germany as the protective, big brother is no longer there or on the same team to support key issues, from Russia’s involvement with Syria or their spread of disinformation to the Paris Accord. As Merkel stated in a rally in May 2017, “The times in which we could completely depend on others are…over.”

Again, this leaves Germany to be a global leader – something they are not even sure they want – while their key ally for the past few decades is nowhere to be found.

Responsibility to Protect

To understand Germany’s narrative is to understand its history, as the country will always experience a shadow of guilt and shame for their involvement in World War II. That said, Germany thus places a strong emphasis on actively reestablishing itself as separate from its past, and part of that is seen through its commitment to humanitarian efforts.

Germany’s responsibility to protect (R2P) and support of humanitarian issues have steadily increased over the past few decades, as seen with their 2015 decision to keep borders open to refugees, taking in around 530,000 Syrians. This is something they have had in common with the United States for years, as the U.S. has also intervened in critical humanitarian crises, from Korea to Kosovo to Libya.

However, America First now abandons R2P as the United States restricts access to immigrants, threatens allies with the holding of humanitarian aid, and remains silent on current crises like the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar. This conflicts with Germany’s feeling of its “sense of duty” to protect others and their decision to become more invested in R2P. So as Germany continues to value R2P, the United States is now abandoning it or using it as a threat, which puts America and Germany at opposite ends of the table as they struggle to understand each other.

Unfortunately for America First, key international issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, the continued turmoil in the Middle East, and the uncertainty with Russia, China, and North Korea are still very real threats to American society and moving into an unknown and unstable future with disgruntled allies would end with America Last.

In the next few weeks, Chancellor Merkel is expected to visit the White House hopefully to improve the fractured relationship, and Trump would be smart to do so. But without recognizing and adjusting America First to fit within traditional German narratives, the prospect looks dim, and America will be alone – without one of their strongest allies.

Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communication or The George Washington University.

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