Commentary 06 June 2018

Berlin Must Rise Above the Futile Spiral of Outrage About Richard Grenell

by Thorsten Benner               Handelsblatt Global

The musings of Richard Grenell, the new US ambassador to Germany, in an interview with right-wing publication Breitbart, were unworthy of a diplomat. Donald Trump’s point man in Berlin celebrates the “resurgence” of conservativism in Europe and vows to personally “empower other conservatives throughout Europe.” This is a bizarre interpretation of his tasks as ambassador to Germany.

No less bizarre, however, is the spiral of outrage that ensued. Both avowed trans-Atlanticists, who feel hurt in their love of America, and old-fashioned anti-Americans are spinning in it.

Johannes Wadepfuhl, a deputy parliamentary leader of the center-right (and usually pro-American) Christian Democrats, spoke of “unacceptable interference into our internal affairs.” Martin Schulz, the former leader of the center-left (and sometimes America-skeptic) Social Democrats, castigated Mr. Grenell for behaving like a “colonial officer of the far right.” Sahra Wagenknecht, a leader of the far-left (and decidedly anti-American) Die Linke, demanded that the government “immediately expel” Mr. Grenell.

This outrage is futile. Germans should instead soberly put the Grenell incident into context. The real problem is US President Donald Trump. Mr. Grenell, a self-avowed Trumpist, is just the messenger.

What would be the use of a sweet and smooth-talking US ambassador in Berlin pretending that everything is normal in trans-Atlantic relations? At least Mr. Grenell, with his provocations, confronts the Berlin establishment with Trump’s “America First.” Berlin has too long clung to the illusion of trans-Atlantic normalcy. Mr. Grenell is the necessary encounter with the real.

With Mr. Trump’s decisions on tariffs, the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord, it has become clear that we have a rupture. Business as usual is no longer an option. Mr. Grenell forces Germans to face this fact and re-imagine their relationship to the US.

Germany should now concentrate on those policies of the Trump administration that pose the biggest dangers to German and European prosperity, stability and security. Mr. Grenell’s pledge to empower conservative leaders across Europe does not feature among those. The ambassador is merely trying to please his audience of one: Donald Trump.

Mr. Grenell alone does not have the means to empower anybody in Europe, including conservatives. He commands no army behind the closed shutters of the US embassy next to the Brandenburg Gate. Nor do most of the embassy staff support Mr. Grenell’s political convictions or diplomatic style.

Mr. Grenell did not, it is worth noting, vow to support extreme right-wing or populist candidates. The politicians he has singled out – like German health minister Jens Spahn and Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz – are conservative, but they are also a far cry from Trumpian insurgents. Mr. Grenell called the Austrian chancellor a “rock star” and invited him for lunch at the embassy. And he met Mr. Spahn and his husband for dinner right after arriving in Berlin. But it is unlikely that this chumminess will boost the careers of either Mr. Kurz or Mr. Spahn. Indeed, if Mr. Trump had a smidgen of Mr. Kurz’s restraint, grasp on reality and respect for democratic institutions, we would all be in a better place.

Berlin should deal pragmatically with Mr. Grenell. Whenever the ambassador fires off too freely, the foreign ministry should send a second- or third-tier official to give him a talking to. In that sense, it was adroit to use a pre-scheduled meeting with the foreign ministry’s Andreas Michaelis to reply this time.

And whenever Mr. Grenell has a point in criticizing German policies, Berlin should respond swiftly and undefensively. Take the German army’s lack of military readiness, and the related issue of Germany’s puny contribution to NATO’s collective security. Both Mr. Trump and Mr. Grenell ranted about this topic repeatedly. But this was also a position taken by the Obama and Bush administrations.

In many other areas, Germany and the US still have common interests. And on other topics, Germany and the EU see their vital interests threatened by Mr. Trump. In those cases, Berlin should clearly communicate its misgivings. But it should always include an offer to negotiate and signal what it is willing to do to push back.

In that context, it may even prove useful that Mr. Grenell has close ties to the “America First” headquarters at the White House. Germany should take advantage of that channel, even as it works with Congress and other movers in the US political system to contain the damage.

Neither blind faith in the trans-Atlantic alliance nor reflexive anti-Americanism must guide German US policy in the Trump era. Political theater – such as Ms. Wagenknecht’s demand to expel Mr. Grenell – does nothing to strengthen German and European sovereignty.

If Germany were serious about guaranteeing its sovereignty, it would invest alongside its European partners, in the EU’s “strategic autonomy,” as pushed by French president Emmanuel Macron. And Germany would build the political, technological, diplomatic and military capabilities to be able to make a meaningful contribution.

When Angela Merkel bid former US president Barack Obama farewell she had “a single tear in her eye,” as Mr. Obama recalled. We should not let this tear cloud our judgment. That era of close ties is now over. It may well be gone forever. But longing for the trans-Atlantic past does not help us face the present or prepare for the future. In any event, a strategically autonomous Germany and Europe would also be a much more effective and relevant partner if a future US government were to recall the best of its global calling.

An Indian colleague recently told me about her consternation at the German response to Mr. Grenell. India reacted differently, she said. Not everybody there is happy with Trump’s point-man in Delhi. But the Indian government and political class very pragmatically concluded that they might as well make the most out of the new situation. Germany has quite a bit to learn from India.

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This commentary was originally published by Handelsblatt Global on June 6, 2018.

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