Part I of Berlin Report:
Part II of Berlin Report:
A new study finds Germans’ opinion of the United States has plummeted during the pandemic.
Nearly three-quarters of the more than 1,000 people surveyed last month said their view of their transatlantic ally has deteriorated.
Joshua Webb, the editor of “The Berlin Pulse,” at the Körber Foundation, which addresses social challenges through international dialogue, and which conducted the study, said this may be due in part to how Germans view President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis and what Webb called a “steady drip of bad publicity.”
“Germans every morning when they wake up to the news, they see stories about the president injecting disinfectant to treat the coronavirus, and I think that just leads to a continuous undermining of trust and also sympathy for the United States,” Webb said.
But Webb said this drop in opinion did not happen overnight. Rather, it builds on a growing estrangement between Germans and Americans since Trump was elected.
Another survey conducted by the foundation in 2019 found 87% of the 1,000 Germans interviewed said if Trump is re-elected, it will have a negative impact on relations between the U.S. and Germany.
But transatlantic relations are not only dependent on the perceived popularity of who sits in the Oval Office, and Webb said Germans might not understand how linked the two countries are.
“I think there’s also a certain, to be honest, ignorance at play on the part of the German population,” Webb said. “I think there is very close cooperation in both political and security terms, and many Germans are simply unaware of how much we actually depend on cooperation with the United States.”
One example is defense spending. The U.S. contributes about 3.5% of its GDP to NATO, more than any other member state. For years, Trump has been critical of countries that aren’t meeting their own spending targets, including Germany.
Germany’s contributions amount to less than 1.5% of the nation’s GDP, though Chancellor Angela Merkel said last year the nation aims to reach the 2% target by the 2030s.
U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell has also previously criticized Germany for not reaching the 2% threshold, saying last August that it was “offensive” to think that U.S. taxpayers would continue to pay for U.S. troops on German soil when “the Germans get to spend their surplus on domestic programs.”
Earlier this month, Grenell called on Germany to “maintain its commitments to its allies through continued investments in NATO’s nuclear share,” after a politician from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) suggested U.S. nuclear weapons be withdrawn from Germany.
His spokesman at the U.S. embassy declined to comment on the Körber findings about German opinions of the United States.
But Webb said a part of the study that interested him most is when Germans were asked what’s more important for the nation: having close relations with the U.S. or having close relations with China, and 36% of Germans answered the latter.
Andrew Adair, a political advisor who lives in Berlin and runs a consulting firm aimed at “explaining Washington to Germany,” said the findings don’t surprise him.
“The German and European viewpoint of the United States starts at a different baseline, so I think Germans are going to have a higher expectation of the United States than China in most areas, so there’s further to fall in a way,” Adair said.
Webb said the survey also revealed a generational divide on that question. Among Germans aged 18 to 34, the youngest cohort surveyed, 46% thought close relations with China were more important for Germany than close relations with the U.S.
In the next age group, Germans aged 35 to 49, the number was much lower: 30% of those surveyed chose China. In the oldest age group surveyed, 65 and over, it was 33%.
“It seems that the younger generation – who did not live through the end of the Cold War or the fall of the Berlin Wall – in particular [is] starting to lean toward China and feels estranged from the U.S.,” Webb said.
Still, Webb said, the lesson here isn’t that Germans are uncritical of China: 71% of those surveyed agreed more transparency from China would have helped to mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And though there may be tensions between Washington and Berlin, Webb and Adair both said the United States and Germany remain important partners.
“There is a real desire in Washington to build this community of interest, to be a bulwark against the Chinese model, so that’s why you see so much pressure being put on Europe right now to hang tough with the U.S. on for example building 5G and there’s a whole range of issues, whether it’s Nord Stream etc.,” Adair said.
He added: “The bottom line is the U.S. does need Germany more than ever and needs Europe more than ever, and my personal hope is that that is recognized more and more in Washington, D.C.”