Since the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president, Germans have lost trust in the United States. According to an opinion poll conducted by Infratest dimap in February 2017, only 22 percent of German respondents considered the United States a reliable partner, down from 59 percent in November 2016. According to a June 2017 survey by Pew Research, moreover, 87 percent of German respondents have no confidence that Trump will do the right thing in world affairs. That has hurt the United States’ overall image; Pew Research data shows that 62 percent of German respondents have unfavorable views of the country. In 2015, that figure was at 45 percent.

Given such strong feelings, it makes sense that Trump has been a frequent topic in Germany’s ongoing federal election campaign. Whether it is his response to the violence in Charlottesville, his announcement of new sanctions on Russia, his pressure on the German government to increase its defense budget, or the deployment of U.S. nuclear weapons in Germany, there is no shortage of fodder for German politicians looking to pick up votes.

Only 22 percent of German respondents considered the United States a reliable partner.

Most leading candidates, for example, have expressed concern over the right-wing violence in Charlottesville. Chancellor Angela Merkel (from the Christian Democratic Union, or CDU) argued that clear, forceful action must be taken against such racist, far-right violence. Her main opponent, Martin Schulz (from the Social Democratic Party, or SPD), took an even harder line, calling the incident “Nazi terror” and finding it shocking that Trump “remained silent about this kind of terror, or makes comments that would allow those who committed these acts of violence there to feel encouraged.”

The new sanctions law drafted by Congress and signed into law by Trump on August 2 is another subject that received plenty of airtime. Although primarily directed at Russian companies, the law could lead to penalties on German companies that do business with Russian counterparts, particularly in the energy field. In response to the first draft of the legislation, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) accused the United States of threatening Europe's energy security to promote U.S. exports of liquefied natural gas to Europe. Schulz shares Gabriel’s view. And Brigitte Zypries, another SPD politician and Germany's minister for economic affairs and energy, argued that the sanctions violate international law and are intended to hurt European business interests in Russia.

A spokesman for Merkel confirmed that she shares these concerns. Meanwhile, Sahra Wagenknecht of the opposition Left Party criticized the new U.S. law as blatantly promoting American economic interests in Europe. She called for the EU to lift its sanctions on Russia. Christian Lindner of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) similarly argued that the EU’s sanctions on Russia could be gradually lifted even without Russia’s full implementation of the Minsk Agreement; a position that was rejected by the German government.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, her challenger from the Social Democratic Party, during a televised debate in Berlin, September 2017.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz, her challenger from the Social Democratic Party, during a televised debate in Berlin, September 2017. 

Trump’s pressure on Germany and other NATO members to increase their defense budgets is another topic that has been widely covered in the German media in the past months and has come up in the campaign. Although the Obama administration regularly called on NATO allies to commit to their pledge to increase their defense budgets to two percent of economic output within a decade, Trump has increased the pressure for them to do so.

German Defense Minister Ursula Von der Leyen of the CDU has argued that Germany must abide by its multilateral commitments and regards the target as an incentive for the modernization of the German military. Merkel also supports the two percent target. In contrast, leading SPD politicians, including Schulz, oppose increasing defense spending on historical grounds. They warn that more spending would make Germany the most powerful military power in Europe, a scenario that they are not interested in. Gabriel has urged Merkel to promote disarmament and better arms controls instead of giving in to Trump’s pressure and risking a new arms race in Europe.

Trump has further announced a desire to modernize U.S. nuclear capacities, some of which are based in Europe. During a campaign speech, Schulz pledged to negotiate a withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany if he becomes the next German chancellor. He argued that the recent clash between Trump and North Korea illustrates the need for arms limitation and nuclear disarmament. Although Merkel did not immediately comment on the issue, members of her CDU denounced Schulz’s statements as cheap campaign rhetoric and argued that credible nuclear deterrence remains an important part of the NATO security architecture. Katrin Göring-Eckardt, the top candidate of the Green Party, supports Schulz’ calls for a nuclear-free Germany but has accused the SPD of having missed out on engagement in this field so far.

Each party has struck a slightly different stance on Trump during its campaign. Although the Left Party is generally U.S.-skeptical in its positions, no other main party uses openly anti-American rhetoric. The CDU is critical of Trump, but Merkel seems reluctant to openly play the anti-Trump card in the election campaign. She has said that Trump must be shown appropriate respect for holding the office of the U.S. presidency even if she may differ with him on policy issues. SPD politicians, in an effort to differentiate themselves from Merkel, with whom they are still in a government coalition, have been notably more critical of the U.S. president. Schulz has said that people like Trump, to whom he referred as “irresponsible man in the White House,” must be openly opposed—something he promised to do if elected. Schulz has criticized Merkel for not taking a tough enough stance on Trump.

U.S. troops after a training flight in Ramstein, Germany, February 2012.
U.S. troops after a training flight in Ramstein, Germany, February 2012.
Alex Domanski / REUTERS

The dynamic is somewhat reminiscent of the 2002 Bundestag election, when the SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder harshly criticized the United States for its plans to invade Iraq. Merkel, then in the opposition, supported the U.S. administration and considered a close partnership with Washington a fundamental element of German foreign policy. Schröder won the election, in part because of his clear opposition to the Iraq War. It was probably to avoid the criticism that she still blindly follows the United States that Merkel made clear she would not automatically support Trump in a war with North Korea.

But a 2002 scenario is unlikely to happen again. Schulz is more moderate in his positions than Schröder and was reluctant to wage an anti-American campaign. And Merkel herself has expressed doubts about the reliability of traditional alliances, alluding to the United States under Trump. She has also argued that Europe will have to take its fate into its own hands. This was a popular move in Germany, reassuring many Germans that Merkel will not cozy up to Trump after the election but will continue to criticize his actions if needed.

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  • Dominik Tolksdorf is Program Director for Foreign and Security Policy at the Heinrich Böll Foundation North America.
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