Storms began to brew early last summer: Even before the new U.S. ambassador to Germany was due for his first official government appointment in the capital Berlin, Richard Grenell already had cause for great concern. Headlines such as "New U.S. Ambassador irritates Berlin" from, under normal circumstances, rather moderate sources were the first indication of the seriousness of what by now, and staying in the same figurative picture, must be labeled a full-blown gale with the potential of making landfall as a hurricane. And since last week the bilateral diplomatic weather forecast has reflected exactly that: Not necessarily good political bedfellows.
It was Gregor Gysi of Germany's Left Party who joined ranks with the Free Democrat Party's (FDP) Wolfgang Kubicki by asking German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to declare Grenell persona non grata; in other words, the U.S. ambassador should be expelled. Granted, these are not the nation's biggest political parties, yet even former Social Democrat Party (SPD) Chairman and former European Parliament President Martin Schulz previously said Grenell is "intolerable," while current Munich Security Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States and a leading personality with a political view close to Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat Party (CDU), suggested to Grenell that he not give any instructions to his host country. Thus written, when political heavyweights go public, one feels tempted to declare whatever they say as mainstream sentiment - or rather not?
So what has led to these verbal confrontations and which issues are at stake, and above all else, can we detect a paradigm shift in trans-Atlantic relations? In other words: Is this debate a mirror image of not only growing dissatisfaction with one particular member of the diplomatic profession but a much more profound expression of the desire to completely recalibrate German-U.S. cooperation?
Four issues that stirred up emotions
First, the subject of how to, or in this case better not to, deal and trade with Iran came up. Second, the intention to make sure certain conservative movements all over Europe are supported, including calling Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz "a rock star" surfaced. Third, criticism of Germany's financial contributions to NATO emerged and last but not least, the Nord Stream Gas Pipeline project was added to the mix.
On the first topic, Ambassador Grenell had issued a statement asking German business to at once reduce their commercial activities in and with Iran, shortly after President Donald Trump had called off the U.S. administration's involvement in the Iran nuclear deal. This coincided with his first day in office last May.
On the next item, Mr. Grenell said in an interview in London that he wished to support other Conservatives in Europe and that policies of the Left should be declared as failures.
Moving on to point number three and a major misstep as far as German reactions are concerned, the ambassador harshly criticized Berlin's NATO contributions as insufficient. Berlin had proposed to increase its share of payments from today's 1.3 percent to 1.37 percent by 2020, then reducing it again to a level of 1.25 percent by 2023. According to Grenell, this would not be acceptable for a leading market economy and way short of the suggested 2 percent per annum!
What made matters worse, if that was still possible, followed shortly thereafter: Grenell voiced open disapproval of Berlin engaging with Russia and the Nord Stream Gas Pipeline project regardless of whether Berlin had agreed to abide by stringent European Union legal stipulations and regardless of the advantages for not simply Germany but the whole of Europe. Grenell had stated that the involvement of German companies in that undertaking could prompt sanctions.
Now one could argue that if these are the views of the Trump administration so be it. Europe and, in particular, Germany may agree or may not agree and come out accordingly. Something else lies at the heart of the matter: As far as many German positions, and most definitely many in the wider population are concerned, the U.S. ambassador clearly overstepped universally accepted diplomatic etiquette by either acting as if he were the president himself or alternatively taking over the role of his public relations spokesperson.
Germany's long tradition of sovereignty
Some foreign observers are surprised to see such outspoken reactions, so let us put this all into a different frame. Over the decades and after World War II, first West Germany, later a reunified Germany, acquired various degrees of sovereignty. Initially dependent on the Allied Forces and always grateful for their having liberated Germany and thus the entire world from the horrors of Hitler's fascism, eventually West Germany became a semi-sovereign state. However, its pro-active role as peacemaker in the emerging European Communities step by step led it to shed the cocoon of being overly dependent on what allied powers wished it to do but was able to position itself as a leading political and economic powerhouse. By the time of reunification, Germany had almost completed a full cycle and today is a fully sovereign nation-state. This does not contradict being a member of the European Union or NATO; despite calls for an ever-closer political union and seen from today's standpoint, the EU is a grouping of 28 (post-Brexit, soon 27) independent yet intertwined fully sovereign nation states.
Thus, when a foreign country, and in particular one that is supposed to be a close ally and friend, begins to openly meddle in domestic German affairs, public sentiment soon shifts. Even more so when a member of the diplomatic corps of that same nation acts as if Germany were a protectorate, a kind of subdivision of the American administration and not an independent country.
Short-term hiccup or long-term anti-Americanism?
What this analysis does not suggest is that Germany has parted ways with the United States for good. To the contrary, what this debate clearly shows, however, is that a modern democratic nation-state as much as it cherishes trans-Atlantic cooperation simply demands being spoken with eye to eye and not being lectured to by a foreign diplomat in an untoward manner.
The underlying concerns are nevertheless much more worrisome. As European populists are on the rise, calls for becoming more nationalistic are heard everywhere. This often includes turning ones back on international hegemony regardless of whether for real or imagined.
With a principally heightened degree of dissatisfaction in quite a few corners of Europe, including Germany, with many of the policy-making proposals emanating from the White House and a leadership style based on handing out orders to its allies and friends instead of asking for commentary first, those German politicians calling for the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador must realize that they would add fuel to the fire.
It is a very difficult decision, a balancing act of enormous proportions. On the one hand, Germany is right to voice public discontent with how the U.S. ambassador acts on its own soil. On the other hand, politicians, administrations and diplomats come and go as in any democracy. One would assume that as written above, a fair and balanced trans-Atlantic partnership based on speaking with each other eye to eye is more relevant in the long run than to burn bridges overnight.
No anti-Americanism as promoted in fringe circles is thus the logical solution; explaining to America that Europe and Germany have long since become seasoned political actors in their own rights is necessary as this is what the current U.S. administration has apparently not as of yet fully realized.
Will the winds subside and the hurricane warnings be lifted? It seems the ball is firmly in Washington's and its German ambassador's court to put things right.
* Political analyst, journalist