Strange, Strained Ties


Germany wouldn’t be the Germany it is today without the US.

It was the US that rebuilt Germany after the Second World through the Marshall Plan. It was the US that reunified Germany through the vision of George H. W. Bush. It was the US that constructed today’s international economic order, of which Germany’s export-oriented economy is the main beneficiary. And it was the US that formed NATO, extending its security umbrella over Europe and enabling Germany to rise from the dead without fearing a Soviet invasion.

Yet fast forward to 2019, and:

“A majority of Germans trust Russia and China more than the US” 

This is the Russia that annexed Crimea in 2014. The Russia that launched cyber-attacks against the German government. The Russia whose associated proxies shot down a passenger airplane in 2014 killing all 298 passengers. And the Russia who is regularly being linked to interfering in exterritorial elections.

Back in 2000, 78% of Germans had a favourable opinion of the US. In 2018, it was a mere 30%.

What has happened since then? And what accounts for the estrangement of both countries?

Since the turn of the millennium, German-American relations have become increasingly volatile. One proxy measure quantifying the alienation is Pew Research Center’s ‘Favorable View’ survey.  Looking at German perception of the US over the past two decades provides interesting insights.

The Bush administration managed to halve German’s favourable view of the US to 30% by 2007. While Obama’s charme-offensive managed to regain ground; (the score jumped to 64% in 2011), this wouldn’t last long either. After the NSA revelations, a meagre 51% had a favourable view of the US.

Thus, while the relationship experienced its ups and downs over the past two decades, the trend is clear.

German-American relations have gone increasingly bad.

It is impossible to find a single causal factor explaining the deterioration of a phenomenon as complex as German-American relations.

Yet two factors stand out:

On the one hand, the past three US administrations have been largely unpopular in Germany.

The Bush administration’s ‘War on Terror’, the lies about WMDs in Iraq, and the pictures from the two prisons associated with the administration (Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo) broadcasted into the living rooms of Germany caused lasting damage.

When Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, Germans were hopeful. Obama received plenty of premature praise. However, in the end he failed to live up to the high expectations. The NSA revelations and his failed Syrian red-line policy made him appear devious and weak in the eyes of many Germans.

Appalled by the US election campaign in 2016, many Germans already made their final judgment about Trump even before he became President. Torn between disbelief and inflated curiosity, German news outlets report on a daily basis about Trump’s recent antics. Trump’s henchman in Germany Richard Grenell, US ambassador to Germany, even trumps his boss in his defiance of diplomatic norms. He regularly has to be reminded that he is not a ‘colonial officer’ (Schulz).  His critique of the North Stream II pipeline is emblematic of the status of the bilateral relationship. While his points are valid, the delivery of his message prevent a serious (and well-needed) engagement with his critique.

On the other hand, Germans seem to have had a bad awakening in recent years. For years, the Germans perception about the US has suffered from dissonance.

Exposed to American culture in its various forms, Germans have admired the ‘American Way of Life’ and the ‘American Dream’ for a long time. German post-War generations have carried on their gratefulness for US generosity in the aftermath of the Second World War through their story-telling. However, with these generations passing away and the proliferation of social media, new realities have emerged and the German illusion has been shattered.

To many the US resembles these days a dystopian opera of capitalist excesses. On the one hand, the few Silicon Valley billionaires, on the other the many left behind ‘deplorables’ (Clinton) suffering from deficient social security nets.

Thus, one might wonder what explains the difference in perception between the US and Russia?

Cialdini famously showed how humans face the personal and interpersonal pressure to act consistently with previous commitments. Deviating from earlier commitments or proclamations is seen as harming credibility. Festinger went further with his term ‘cognitive dissonance’. People have an inner need to ensure their beliefs and behaviours are in harmony. Inconsistency between the two leads to disharmony.

What can the consistency bias and cognitive dissonance tell us by analogy about the differences in perception about the US and Russia?

It seems that with Russia, Germans know what they got. They are fully aware that the country is not a democracy. It’s run by kleptocrats. The economy is ruled by oligarchs. Regime-critics are poisoned or locked away. The cases of Khodorkovsky, Navalny, Skripal, and Litvinenko have been closely monitored in Germany.

As a result of the German perception of Russia, the room for disappointment with Russian actions is relatively low. Russia, unlike the US, doesn’t claim for itself the moral high-ground in international affairs. Its actions are limited towards protecting its national interests. Russia explains its motives in a relatively frank manner.

This led to a widespread indifference of the annexation of Crimea in Germany. Albeit a breach of international law, the Russian historical explanation was largely given a pass by the population. It went along the lines: ‘At least there is a historical explanation for their move’. Or rather any explanation that didn’t hide behind feigned moral motives.

Towards the US, German suspicion is way greater. Too often have moral arguments been used for policy measures intended to further national interests. It seems that selfishly pursuing national interests gets a pass, as long as one is transparent about it.

Or along the lines of Festinger: As there is no gap between perception and behaviour.


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