(Bloomberg Opinion) — Germans of a certain age will be writhing with conflicting emotions this week, 30 years after the Berlin Wall cracked open, as they listen to an emissary of U.S. President Donald Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will mark the anniversary with a speech in Berlin. Looking on will be Chancellor Angela Merkel, the opposite of everything Trump represents. Pompeo plans to exhort her to “defend free nations and free peoples.”
Rhetorically, that sounds like the America of three decades ago, and could have been uttered by President George H.W. Bush or his secretary of state, James Baker. But the Germans will be rolling their eyes, and some may shed a stealthy tear. For Pompeo’s oratory will sound empty and hypocritical to them, and thus frightening. As they know better than Americans do, nothing is the same between Germany and America, and that’s a disaster.
When the Berlin Wall crumbled, the U.S. under Bush senior was the only one of the Allied Powers that had occupied Germany after World War II to immediately grasp the moment as an opportunity rather than a threat. The French, British and Soviets, by contrast, instinctively feared a return of the “German Question,” and had to be coaxed by Bush and Baker before acceding to reunification in 1990.
America’s magnanimity was as remarkable as the anxiety of the other Allies was understandable. For centuries, the German Question had described a recurring problem of continental imbalance. The sprawling lands at Europe’s heart were either fragmented and weak, thus sucking in competing powers as Syria does today; or, after 1871, united and overbearing, thus menacing the continent.
Germany’s defeat and division in 1945 had fortuitously seemed to answer the Question. There were to be two Germanies, one in each geopolitical bloc. Instead of Germany forever agonizing about whether it was part of the West, the East or mystically “equidistant,” one part was now over here, the other over there.
Under the benevolent guardianship of the U.S., West Germany could now reintegrate itself into the larger cultural and commercial West. In this way, America became dad. It was the protector against the Soviets as well as the role model of cool. Elvis Presley, briefly deployed to West Germany with the U.S. Army, embodied this dual role.
If the U.S. was dad, France was mom. It was the other West, the former enemy and victim with whom Germany had to make amends. Thus was born what is today the European Union. For the French, it may have been a vehicle to keep projecting French power (even against the U.S.) after the loss of empire and glory. But for the Germans, Franco-German friendship and “Europe” were forms of atonement. Everybody knew that this embrace was only possible because U.S. power now subsumed the old rivalries.
Adopted by these parents, Germans believed they were burying nationalism and embracing a post-national identity. Germans would henceforth be good world citizens, people who trade rather than shoot, who seek cooperation rather than self-interest. To play this role, of course, they needed the U.S. and the international system of rules it policed.
When the Berlin Wall fell, the Germans made a big mental mistake. They assumed that the whole world would now grasp the same lessons they had learned, by adopting the same liberal, multilateral, win-win mindset. The reunited Germans felt they were ahead, and that the zeitgeist would catch up with them. They would soon be in for a shock.
Many shocks, in fact. But no instance of German cognitive dissonance came close to Trump’s victory in 2016. Here was dad himself turning nationalist and negating all German assumptions. Here was another German-American U.S. president, who seemed the opposite of Dwight Eisenhower, the gracious conqueror-turned-liberator.
Tone-deaf, Trump keeps berating Germany, and Merkel personally. He’s right that Germany spends too little on its army (having outsourced military prowess to the Americans for so long). He’s right that its trade surplus needn’t be so big. But the Germans weren’t ready to go from family to foes overnight. Would the U.S. still defend them in a pinch? Germans feel like a child that is grown but not yet independent and is suddenly being disowned.
Among the many aspects of the relationship that Trump fails to grasp is that America’s retreat as benevolent hegemon reopens Europe’s old German Question. That frightens all Europeans, including the Germans. But the breach cuts deeper than geopolitics; it is personal and emotional.
Merkel was on the eastern side of the Berlin Wall on that night, 30 years ago. (Not immediately grasping that the moment was historic, she carried on with her sauna visit.) Like many East Germans of her generation, she adored the U.S., both as an idea and a destination — she still raves about a trip to San Diego and her feeling of freedom there.
When Trump won the White House, Merkel was gutted. Every signal he has sent since confirmed her worst fears. As she diplomatically listens to Pompeo lecturing her about “freeing peoples,” she will suffer the pain of an orphan.
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Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist.
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