June 13, 2017

Atlantik-Brücke Think Tank: The End of the Affair?

The Atlantik-Brücke think tank has for decades influenced key appointments in US-German relations. But are Donald Trump and his America First policies now killing it off?

ByGregor Peter Schmitz

Published on07. June 2017, 15:00

The strong Merkel-Obama relationship was one of many between US and German leaders. Source: Picture Alliance/AP

When the Atlantik-Brücke recently held its annual meeting in Berlin, business was not as usual.

The usual high-profile attendees, hand-picked by the elite think tank founded in 1952 to promote German-American relations, were present, and Germany’s foreign minister gave the opening remarks. But the usual topics of improving free trade and developing bilateral projects seemed to be off the agenda.

Instead, discussions among participants revolved around a more fundamental topic: what does it actually mean to be an atlanticist in the days of President Donald Trump? Even more to the point, does anyone in Germany still want to be one? Reactions to these questions range from surprise to disbelief.

A beacon of Germany’s friendship with the United States, the Atlantik-Brücke has long fostered closer ties between the two countries. Current members include Henry Kissinger and German chancellor Angela Merkel, and its “young leaders” program, which talent spots from both sides of the pond and most sides of the political spectrum, has alumni including US senator Charles Schumer, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière and Airbus chief Thomas Enders.

For the titans of the German economy, membership in the club has been more than just an honor; it’s been a smart investment. This has long rung true for both sides of industry – from bankers to union heads. It’s a motley crew united by one seemingly unwavering idea: love for America.

“We Europeans must look out for our own interests, even, if necessary, against the Americans.”

Friedrich Merz, president, Atlantik-Brücke

This idea, however, is beginning to waver, as exemplified by Ms. Merkel’s recent statement that “the times in which we could rely on others are largely over,” a thinly veiled comment on the new US-German relationship. The remark was met with a Twitter rebuke from Mr. Trump focusing on Germany’s paltry defense spending and its far-too-robust and even “unfair” trade surplus.

This marks a serious turning point in the trans-Atlantic relationship and a rift far greater than the falling out between former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former President George W. Bush over the Iraq War. The spat, driven by Mr. Trump, has shaken the foundations of the Atlantik-Brücke and has left Germany’s America enthusiasts feeling like jilted lovers.

This could have some serious consequences. Critics have long been skeptical of the think tank’s leadership and network, largely thanks to former president Walther Leisler Kiep’s involvement in a corruption scandal that engulfed the ruling Christian Democrats in the 1990s. His successor, Friedrich Merz, proceeded to clean up the think tank’s activities and its public image. During the very public fall out between Mr. Schröder and Mr. Bush in 2003, the group took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times highlighting and encouraging close ties despite the disagreement. It attracted a lot of interest.

The group’s members know that good relations between the countries are always good for the bottom line. For example, Mr. Merz, once one of the Christian Democrats’ bright stars, is now paid as chairman of the advisory board for investor BlackRock’s German subsidiary.

But this week, he threw his weight behind Ms. Merkel. “Europe needs to grow up and come up with an independent foreign policy and security policy,” he said. The US would remain an important strategic partner for Germany, he went on, “but we Europeans must look out for our own interests, even, if necessary, against the Americans.”

Against America? That sounds like a completely fresh narrative. But it’s one echoed by David Deissner, managing director of the Atlantik-Brücke. Mr. Trump, of course, is not America. It is possible, according to Mr. Deissner, that Mr. Trump’s America could become a different country than the one we Germans have come to know.

That very idea could shake the think tank’s networking initiatives to the core. Traditionally, it has been influential in the appointment of important transatlantic posts. But the problem now is that it has few links with the Trump administration, and potential candidates in Atlantic-Brücke’s network aren’t being considered for jobs. They’re viewed with suspicion because they’re won’t submit to Mr. Trump’s “America first” pledges.

Although anti-Trump sentiment was in evidence at the annual meeting, the idea that eight years of Mr. Trump might lead to the destruction of the “Atlantik-Brücke” network is unlikely. There’s still a lot of support for the think tank’s core ideas, according to Mr. Deissner.

In the meantime, Mr. Metz’s thoughts about political power, four years of Mr. Trump and political power in the US might be reassuring to members: “We should remain calm and be self-confident. We should speak with the entire administration and observe developments in the political debates in America. The 50 state governors are also really important dialog partners.”

The way forward for the Atlantik-Brücke might involve a temporary detour around Washington to the more German-friendly parts of America.


This article originally appeared in the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author:gregorpeter.schmitz@wiwo.de

No comments: