BERLIN — When John F. Kennedy stood at the Brandenberg Gate in 1963 and declared “Ich bin ein Berliner” ("I am a Berliner"), it was to assure Berliners and West Germans the United States would never abandon a city then surrounded by Soviet-aligned forces.
Over the years, the statement has stood as a symbol of American commitment to Europe in the postwar era — despite being mocked for its associations with jelly doughnuts.
Almost six decades on, another U.S. president just declared his affiliation to Germany — this time with very different implications. "I have great respect for Germany. My father’s from Germany. Both of my parents are from the E.U., despite the fact they don’t treat us well on trade," Trump said at a news conference in Brussels on Thursday, the second day of the NATO summit. (In reality, Trump's father Frederick Christ Trump was born in New York to German parents, before the European Union was created. His mother was born in Scotland.)
Trump's comments came after two days that have rocked U.S. allies in Europe — and Germany in particular. While Trump refrained from fully escalating his simmering dispute with NATO member states this week, his vision of how U.S. foreign policy should look differs greatly from that of his counterparts in Europe.
In Europe, an increasing number of Trump's demands — for instance, that member states should spend 4 percent of their GDP on defense — are perceived as mere provocations that could derail an alliance that has persisted through the Cold War, 9/11 and U.S. military incursions in the Middle East. Many Germans fear Trump may focus on the balance sheet, but is falling short of taking into account the benefits of a Western alliance that is shaped by the United States, rather than acting against U.S. interests.
Those concerns mounted this week after Trump claimed “Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia.”
“We have to talk about the billions and billions of dollars that’s being paid to the country we’re supposed to be protecting you against,” Trump said, speaking on camera and referring to U.S. military bases in Germany that long protected the country against the Soviet Union.
Indicating just how much Kennedy's promise to defend Berlin is still on the minds of Germans, Chancellor Angela Merkel chose to respond to Trump by referring to her own upbringing in communist East Germany. “I’ve experienced myself a part of Germany controlled by the Soviet Union, and I’m very happy today that we are united in freedom,” Merkel said.
It is a freedom that would likely not exist today without U.S. support. About 35,000 U.S. military personnel are still based there, deployed from there for missions in the Middle East and Africa and acting as a deterrence against Russia.
Trump has received some support in Germany, the rest of Europe and at home for demanding Germans pay more for defense. But while the essence of Trump's criticism may be hard to refute in some instances, it is the style and the scale of his threats that seem to be antagonizing U.S. allies.
During the first year of his presidency, Trump spent more time lashing out at the central European nation known for sauerkraut, eco-friendliness and high-quality cars than he did criticizing Russia, despite allegations of its election interference and assassination plots abroad.
In the hometown of Trump's grandfather Frederick Trump, Kallstadt, residents share the ambivalent feelings of the U.S. president over his heritage. Ever since Trump became a presidential candidate, Kallstadt residents have been trying to balance pride for their small town's new significance with the unease many there feel about the U.S. president's controversial policies and rhetoric.
After all, the president has not always fully embraced his roots. In his famous 1987 book, "The Art of the Deal," Trump claimed his grandfather “came here from Sweden as a child.” That is the version Trump's family spread during World War II to avoid conflicts with customers and friends.
Even much later, in the years after his book was published, Trump sometimes perpetuated that inaccuracy, even though he had already acknowledged his German roots by that time.
These days, distinguishing between Sweden and Germany would not make much difference, anyway: Trump is deeply unpopular in both countries.
Paul Schemm contributed to this post.
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