Germans want Trump to lose—but they don’t have high hopes for a Biden presidency

October 25, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

Germans overwhelmingly want Joe Biden to take the U.S. presidency from Donald Trump.

That much is clear from a poll earlier this month in which 71% of Germans favored the Democrat, and a prior survey months ago that showed 76% of Germans expect better U.S.-European relations under a Biden administration. Trump has repeatedly topped the list of German fears.

But some are cautious about expecting too much from a Biden win, which polls suggest is the likely outcome of the looming U.S. election.

On many of the issues that have seen the Trump administration butt heads with Berlin—the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia; Germany’s levels of defense spending; how to handle China—experts on the transatlantic relationship see little reason to expect big changes, whoever wins.

“The mood is sort of dampened,” says Sophia Becker, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). “I have noticed that Germans are at the moment approaching [the election] with a coolness…Not everything is going to be roses and peaches if Biden is elected.”

Preexisting conditions

It is not difficult to explain Germans’ overall antipathy to Trump; the U.S. President has regularly approached the country with aggression. Shortly after coming into office, he was reported to have said that “the Germans are bad, very bad”—apparently a reference to Germany’s trade surplus.

Trump has repeatedly threatened to impose heavy tariffs on imports of German cars. And in 2018, his pick for ambassador to Berlin, Rick Grenell, began his new job by tweeting at German companies to “immediately” wind down their Iranian operations. (“Germans are eager to listen, but they will resent instructions,” replied Munich Security Conference chair Wolfgang Ischinger.)

But while Trump’s government may have shown Germany a snarl rather than the customary smile of preceding administrations, many of its underlying policies aren’t really so different.

Yes, Trump authorized sanctions on companies that help Russia’s Gazprom complete its Nord Stream 2 pipeline into Germany, leading the Baltic port town of Sassnitz—where many German jobs are tied to the project—to fear ruin.

But Barack Obama’s administration also opposed Nord Stream 2 with the same claim: that it would damage European energy security. Trump’s just the one who baldly stated that Europe should be buying American gas instead. (Rewind to the early 1980s, and you’ll also find the U.S. strong-arming European companies over their participation in a Russia-to-Western-Europe gas project.)

President Obama also laid into Germany and other NATO members over their failure to meet the alliance’s defense-spending commitments, just as Trump went on to do—though unlike Trump, Obama never went so far as to pull U.S. troops from Germany as punishment. (“We’re reducing the force because they’re not paying their bills,” the current President said bluntly.)

Biden’s plans

In some respects, Biden’s policies toward Germany could mark a continuation of Trump’s.

“For too long, the global trading system has failed to keep its promises to American workers,” reads the Democratic election platform, in words that would not sound unfamiliar coming from Trump’s own mouth. Biden is also planning a “Buy American” campaign worth over $400 billion, and he says his administration wouldn’t conclude new international trade deals until that cash is spent.

That wouldn’t be good news for German exporters, who would dearly like to see progress in the U.S. and EU’s stalled trade negotiations.

“Whatever the outcome of the election will be, the U.S. remains one of the most important markets in the world for the German automotive industry,” says Hildegard Müller, president of the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA). “A comprehensive free trade agreement would be a great asset. However, the negotiations are currently making little progress. Hopefully, this will change soon.”

“America seems to be taking a more protectionist route on many issues,” says Jonathan Hackenbroich, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ (ECFR) task force for protecting Europe from economic coercion.

Lennart Preiss—Getty Images

Hackenbroich reckons the U.S. won’t stop using what he sees as coercive economic tactics, whoever wins in November. Here he includes the U.S. Cloud Act‘s demand that American cloud providers give U.S. prosecutors sensitive data that is stored on foreign servers. The ECFR this week warned that requests for the sensitive data of European companies could endanger “essential national or European interests.”

“What I’m expecting [in the event of a Biden win] is a certain three months’ relief, and then everyone will notice that in many of these aspects—and I’m just talking geoeconomics—the Biden administration won’t be fundamentally changing,” Hackenbroich says. “The tariffs won’t go away. The data-transfer coercion won’t go away. On sanctions, it’s not even clear 100% [whether Biden will lift them].”

And that lack of change, he suggests, could fuel the continuation of a European initiative that has gathered pace in recent years: the quest for “sovereignty.”

European sovereignty

Europe and the U.S. have had a very close relationship since the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Americans’ Marshall Plan aided the rebuilding of Western Europe. Relations between the two sides took a big knock during the Iraq War but recovered under the Obama administration.

Then came Trump, with his uniquely abrasive attitude toward American allies—plus China, whose increasing assertiveness, particularly regarding technology and corporate takeovers, now made it a systemic rival to the EU. So when Ursula von der Leyen became the first German President of the European Commission last year, she told her new team to prepare the defenses. To hammer home the point, she referred to them as a “geopolitical commission.”

“Ensure a level playing field in our economic relations with other partners, promoting Europe’s competitiveness and strategic autonomy in key value chains,” von der Leyen wrote to her new economy chief, Valdis Dombrovskis. “In doing so, you should pay particular attention to our trade and economic relations with our competitors and strategic partners.”

Last month, von der Leyen said the EU should lead reforms at the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization—two of Trump’s favorite punching bags.

“You have to credit Trump’s harsh approach,” says DGAP’s Becker of Europe’s newfound assertiveness. “It was a rude awakening, but it was certainly an awakening.”

However, talking about sovereignty is one thing—achieving it another. Looking at defense, for example, European security remains largely reliant on the U.S. muscle that comes with the NATO agreement.

As Becker notes, Trump has “singled Germany out in many ways as the prime scapegoat of his attack on European allies” over the issue of NATO contributions. And, almost a year ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government said that from 2021 it would match the U.S.’s own contributions to the alliance’s budget.

“If we look at the German defense budget, we don’t see an increase in the budget for the next couple years, given the economic situation,” says Becker. “Yes, [Trump] has driven at least a theoretical reckoning with European sovereignty, but I haven’t seen that countries like Germany have put their money where their mouth is.”

Last month, the New York Times reported that Trump is keen to withdraw from NATO if he wins a second term. “That would be devastating,” says Becker. “There is no way that Europe could replace the U.S. We don’t have the capabilities and the political capacity to replace the U.S.”

And that is where, for the German economy as much as its defense, a Biden win could make a significant difference—he’d probably dial down the antagonism.

“Joe Biden is known to be a multilateralist,” says Hackenbroich. “He’s someone who has appreciation for allies, which isn’t necessarily the case with the current one.”