In a speech in Berlin on Friday, he recalled his days as a young Army second lieutenant in the Bavarian town of Bindlach, just months before the end of the Cold War, praising the U.S.-German cooperation that had helped to bring it to a close.
“We have a duty, each of us, to defend what was so hard won,” he said. “And we have to do it together, because doing it alone is impossible.”
Behind closed doors, though, President Trump has threatened to pull out of NATO, the pillar of Western security cooperation against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Publicly, Trump has called on Europe to contribute more, deriding some of the United States’ closest allies as freeloaders.
“Now the transatlantic relationship is more or less in dire straits,” said Kristina Spohr, a historian at the London School of Economics. “There are all these questions over the future of NATO and America’s relationship with Germany. There’s deep uncertainty and, up to a point, instability.”
But the relationship was being recalibrated well before Trump, said John Kornblum, U.S. ambassador to Germany between 1997 and 2001 and co-secretary of the American Academy in Berlin.
“This administration is not the most careful tender to relations, but the American engagement in Europe has been slowly dwindling away really ever since the beginning of George H.W. Bush’s administration,” Kornblum said. “They started to pull away.”
Trump has derided the transatlantic relationship since the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
“I think our country needs more ego, because it is being ripped off so badly by our so-called allies — i.e., Japan, West Germany, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, et cetera,” Trump told Playboy in March 1990 as the two Germanys were swiftly moving to reunify. “We Americans are laughed at around the world . . . for defending wealthy nations for nothing, nations that would be wiped off the face of the earth in about 15 minutes if it weren’t for us. Our ‘allies’ are making billions screwing us.”
Since his election, Trump has demanded that NATO partners meet their obligations to pay 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, to balance the United States’s 3.5 percent commitment.
Asked about NATO on Friday, Pompeo said that he was “for it” but that it risked becoming obsolete if partners did not properly contribute.
French President Emmanuel Macron, however, blamed the United States’s unwillingness to consult its NATO partners for contributing to “brain death” of the alliance. “You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies,” he told the Economist in an interview published Thursday.
Macron’s statement gave a public airing to mounting concern within NATO. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel pushed back. “I don’t think that such sweeping judgments are necessary, even if we have problems and need to pull together,” she said.
Pushing Europe to do more was long overdue, said James Bindenagel, who served as a U.S. ambassador to Berlin in the 1990s and was deputy ambassador when the wall fell.
“Germany has to take leadership, and they are not prepared to do that. But they have no choice,” Bindenagel said. “If we want to have a stronger pillar of the European relationship, they have to do that.”
“We’ve decided, or the president has decided, that we’ll withdraw,” he said, referring to U.S. stewardship in Europe. “There is a leadership vacuum, and the vacuum will be filled — I would prefer that wasn’t by the Chinese or the Russians.”
But there is now a serious “trust problem” with NATO’s security pact, he said: “I believe the Americans will fulfill their commitment, but there’s growing uncertainty and mistrust. I hope that it isn’t tested.”
In an op-ed this week, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stirred controversy by making no mention of the United States in a list of those he thanked for reunification. “German unity was a gift from Europe to Germany,” he wrote, also thanking peaceful protesters in East Germany, democracy activists in Eastern-bloc countries and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
After blowback from critics, including Kornblum, the former U.S. ambassador, Maas used a joint news conference in Leipzig to stress the importance of the alliance — now and 30 years ago.
“Without the leadership of the U.S., there wouldn’t have been reunification,” he said. “This friendship is the foundation for all the things we intend to set in motion in the future in the field of international politics, wherever we stand up to defend our interest in the world.”
But it is a different world today, said Mary Sarotte, a historian of international relations at Johns Hopkins University.
The “outbreak of optimism” that accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago appears to have evaporated, she said, “which is truly heartbreaking for those of us who were in Europe in 1989.”
“Now, 30 years down the road, you have [Russian President Vladimir] Putin hacking the U.S. elections, Trump talking about withdrawing from NATO and a real decline in transatlantic and U.S.-Russia relations,” Sarotte said. The fact that this is happening after the United States has withdrawn from post-Cold War arms control agreements is particularly worrisome, she added.
The starkest difference, though, is that the current administration is more interested in putting up walls than taking them down, she said. She described Pompeo’s attendance at the unveiling of a statue to President Ronald Reagan on Friday as “deeply ironic.”
The statue commemorates Reagan’s famous 1987 speech in which he implored Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
Berlin had long rejected U.S. requests for a Reagan statue, deeming his status as an honorary citizen enough. The U.S. Embassy found a workaround by installing it on a balcony overlooking the location where he spoke — but technically on U.S. soil.
Birnbaum reported from Brussels. Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.