BERLIN - As Mike Pompeo visits Germany for commemorations to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is a nostalgic trip for a secretary of state who once served as a soldier patrolling the line that scarred Europe.
The visit is also a loaded one. Pompeo’s deployment as part of NATO forces in Germany came at the peak of the transatlantic relationship, when U.S.-European cooperation helped bring down the barrier and eventually the Iron Curtain.
Yet this week he tours a Europe shaken by a U.S. administration that has cast uncertainty over that alliance and the very institution with which he served.
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.”
It was a trip designed to present a united front. But behind closed doors, President Donald Trump has threatened to pull out of NATO, the pillar of Western security cooperation against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Publicly, he has called on Europe to contribute more, deriding some of America’s closest allies as freeloaders.
The dispute is among numerous issues that have cleaved the relationship, with Europe and Washington at odds over the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, Germany’s new gas pipeline from Russia and the sudden U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Trump has also sparked a transatlantic trade war by imposing tariffs on European steel and aluminum, as well as symbolic goods such as wine and cheese.
That comes against the backdrop of renewed East-West tension, with Pompeo warning Friday that authoritarianism is once again rising as he cited threats from both Russia and China. He called for a united front, although analysts said the Trump administration is doing little to forge one.
“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.”
In Europe, where the United States has long been a counterbalance to Russian power, there is “a lot of anxiety about suddenly being left alone,” said Spohr, author of “Post Wall, Post Square: Rebuilding the World After 1989.”
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,” he 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, etc.,” 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 fifteen 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% of their gross domestic product on defense, to balance the United States’s 3.5% commitment.
“Western free nations have a responsibility to deter threats to our people,” said Pompeo. “We are only stronger together.”
Asked about NATO on Friday, he said he was “for it” but warned that it did risk becoming obsolete if partners did not properly contribute.
French President Emmanuel Macron went as far as to describe NATO as being in the midst of a “brain death” in an interview published Thursday. “You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies,” he told the Economist.
Macron’s statement gave a public airing to mounting concern within the alliance, but it was criticized by German Chancellor Angela Merkel as a step too far. “I don’t think that such sweeping judgments are necessary, even if we have problems and need to pull together,” she said.
After Pompeo’s arrival, Germany Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer pledged that Germany’s military would play a more active international role and pledged to reach its 2% defense target by 2031.
Merkel met with Pompeo on Friday for a discussion she said would cover Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria and Libya.
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 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. “Germany unity was a gift from Europe to Germany,” he wrote, also thanking peaceful protesters, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Hungarian protesters.
After critics including Kornblum said it showed that Maas was unable to say anything positive about the United States, Maas used a joint news conference in Leipzig on Thursday to stress the importance of the alliance - both now and 30 years ago.
“Without the leadership of the U.S., there wouldn’t have been reunification,” said Maas. “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 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 has 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.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.