The Uncharted Path Ahead for German-American Relations


The annual German American Conference (GAC) at Harvard Kennedy School offers unique insights into the hearts and minds of the transatlantic community. This year’s themes included noteworthy undertones of concern about the support for Ukraine ahead of the US presidential elections in 2024, different frameworks for security debates, and a persistent imbalance in the interest Americans and Germans share in each other.

crowd in hall with large screen above them

Passing by Harvard Memorial Church on a sunny Friday evening in late October felt like observing a class reunion. The yard outside the church was crowded with people who had just attended the opening ceremony of the 15th German American Conference (GAC). The air brimmed with excitement, many greeted each other in ways disclosing their familiarity. Stepping into the crowd and listening into conversations added more serious tones to the light atmosphere: “That was a strong statement,” a participant said to others, referring to the keynote debate they had just heard, “to say that the European Union is really dispensable compared to the United States’ role in the world.” “Yes, but he was right in pointing that out,” another participant responded, “We cannot take for granted that the US will forever be so strongly involved with support for Ukraine and in other international affairs.” This conversation set the scene for many that would follow that weekend, which reveals a strong concern within the transatlantic community about imminent changes in the global security landscape and the future of transatlantic relations. And something else was emblematic about this first evening’s conversation: people talked in German, not in English. This reflected the stark imbalance between Germans and Americans in attendance, which is a noteworthy observation about a conference that at its heart has the goal of fostering exchange between the two countries.

The GAC is an annual, student-led conference that brings together over 700 students and leaders from both sides of the Atlantic for one weekend to discuss current challenges in the fields of society, culture, technology, politics, business, and beyond. It is the largest conference of its kind in the United States, and as such offers unique insights into current debates on transatlantic relations.

After a weekend full of conversations and debates, Antonia Brand, who participated on behalf of the Heinrich Böll Foundation Washington, DC at the conference, drew the following conclusions about the state of transatlantic relations and fields of action for the transatlantic community:

Germans and Americans fear the 2024 election result and a second Trump administration, but there is very little strategic and practical preparation for that day. We should spur a debate between democratic stakeholders.

There is one question that spun its way through the conference like a red thread: What might change in the international sphere after the US presidential elections in November 2024? The keynote address on the main conference day, held by Wolfgang Schmidt, Germany’s Head of the Federal Chancellery and Federal Minister for Special Tasks, was no exception. Schmidt’s speech looked back on the historic Zeitenwende (watershed moment) in German security policy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which most notably included Germany ending its longstanding principle of never sending weapons to conflict zones and its recommitment to military spending. When a participant’s question turned the perspective towards the future, the energy in the room grew markedly more tense. How, Schmidt was asked, does Germany prepare for the US presidential election in November of 2024, a possible (re)election of a Republican hardliner as President, and the possibility that the US might then cease to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia? “Regarding support for Ukraine,” Schmidt stated, “that’s a headache, of course, because it is hard to substitute for the US. Our hope is that the Senate and the House of Representatives will slow down some of the disruptive activities of the president then. We will adapt when it comes to it.”

The audience question and Schmidt’s reply were indicative of concerns that featured in numerous conversations during the conference: German policymakers and political thinkers worry about the outlook of transatlantic relations and specifically the question of military and financial support for Ukraine after November 2024; but they also lack concrete answers for what Germany, European countries, and NATO need to do to alleviate possible consequences. The high level of concern and simultaneous lack of planning and action almost seem paradoxical. And it is a paradox important to disentangle given the severity of consequences that would come about from a retreat of US support for Ukraine.

One reason for the apparent lack of strategic planning and preparation among German policymakers is that a discussion of the “What if” question is uncomfortable and potentially costly.

First, if Germany is serious about supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” it will have to contribute greatly to filling the military and financial gap the US will potentially leave. In terms of military commitments, Germany is the second largest donor to Ukraine worldwide, but German contributions amount to only less than half of what the US has committed, thereby remaining far behind. And although the German government has just announced plans to double its military support to Ukraine in 2024 from 4 to 8 billion €, the uncomfortable truth is that German efforts still remain largely insufficient to address a cessation of US support.

A second challenge is that more financial and military support for Ukraine stands in sharp contrast to an increasing fatigue in the German population. For instance, a DeutschlandTrend poll found that a majority of Germans opposed the delivery of Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine in August of 2023; and a public opinion study conducted in June by the German Marshall Fund in the USA, Canada, and twelve European countries found Germans to be the least enthusiastic of all in terms of financial support for the reconstruction of Ukraine. So regarding the question of preparations to step in for US support, German politicians not only face the challenge of how to finance increased aid; they also run the risk of losing domestic support.

A third explanation for the apparent lack of preparedness is that Germany, and other European countries, find it convenient to have the US as a guarantor of security in Europe. They want to uphold this for as long as possible and want to avoid sending signals that might spur a US retreat. US involvement is convenient because it saves European governments money and spares them uncomfortable domestic discussions and difficult debates about the European security architecture. Any large public debate on European willingness and preparedness to step in for US aid might signal to the US that it is becoming more “dispensable.” This, in turn, could spur the US to decrease its support - even if the US government remains in the hands of the Democrats after the 2024 elections. This would be an undesired outcome for Germany and European countries, so they try to avoid signals that could potentially spur it.

In short, there is a strong incentive for German government officials and politicians like Schmidt to only deal with the question of how to replace US support for Ukraine “When it comes to it,” and that explains the paradox of current inaction despite rising concern. Yet, a Republican presidency and the cessation of US aid for Ukraine are well within the realm of realistic outcomes. And not being prepared to step in might result in severe repercussions for Ukraine, Europe, and the world. In addition, experts highlight that it is nearly impossible for European countries to fully replace US military aid to Ukraine. This only stresses the urgency of leading a serious public debate about realistic scenarios and necessary actions regarding the security situation in Europe and the war in Ukraine after November 2024.

Feminist Foreign Policy has arrived on the stage, but we need to discuss it in the same room as “hard” security approaches.

Out of the more than 50 panel discussions, talks, and workshops on transatlantic issues at the conference, many of which concerned issues of security and geopolitics, two events were explicitly devoted to feminist foreign policy (FFP). Observing them provided conclusions about the contemporary debate on security issues. First, the existence of these events at the GAC reflects that alternatives to current mainstream foreign policy have arrived on the debate stage within the transatlantic community. At the same time, it was notable that military practitioners were absent from the stages and the audiences of these events. And FFP voices, in turn, were largely absent from all the other security-focused events. This exemplifies how alternative security frameworks such as FFP are still at the sidelines when it comes to the discussion and practice of foreign and security policy.

These observations are testimonies to the work that still needs to be done in order to push for more diverse, inclusive, and equitable foreign and security policy thinking not only in academia but also in practice. FFP and similar approaches such as Human Security or Gender, Peace and Security can and should be used regularly as lenses in debates and decisions on security issues.

The benefits from incorporating this FFP lens are manifold. FFP promotes an understanding of security and security policy that is more holistic and human-centered than mainstream foreign policy perspectives and practices, and calls for the disruption of existing power structures within societies by increasing the access of minorities and other groups who have been silenced or underrepresented in decision-making processes. FFP thereby seeks to achieve more equitable and sustainable outcomes of peacemaking and development processes. A growing body of research demonstrates that FFP in practice can indeed live up to its goals. For instance, a peace agreement that includes women is 35% more likely to last longer than 15 years. Based on findings like this, the Sustainable Development Goals as well as several United Nations Security Council resolutions call for more inclusive and equitable foreign, security, and development policies. And several countries around the world, including Canada, France, and Germany, have officially adopted an FFP. Considering this, the transatlantic community should aim to further promote the framework - also in the United States.

Americans are less interested in Germany than the other way around; the GAC reflects this asymmetry but can also help to reduce it.

One thing that certainly no participant could help but notice was the strong surplus of Germans in attendance at the conference. During a dinner conversation a participant put it this way: “Instead of English, we could as well hold the whole conference in German; it would make no difference to almost anyone.”

The numbers support this impression. At this year’s conference, 70% of participants were German; only 10% were American, and 20% had a different nationality. For a conference held in English at an American university, this seems surprising. But the GAC, as an event specifically focused on German-American relations, only reflects the bigger picture: Germans have a higher interest in the United States than the other way around. This is no surprise given the differences (e.g. in size) between the two countries regarding their perceived and factual importance for each other - politically, economically, or language-wise, for example. For instance, among Germans the US is the country most frequently named as the most important foreign policy partner in the world; in the US, on the other hand, Germany comes only fifth.

This is an asymmetry we should take seriously. While publics in Germany and the US are increasingly turning inwards, and politicians are winning elections with isolationist rhetoric, global challenges are ever-pressing. The US and European countries need each other as close partners in international affairs. But close collaboration is based on deep mutual understanding. And understanding begins with exchanges on an individual level. The GAC provides a forum for exactly that. But the composition of a forum decisively determines the scale and type of its impact. The GAC has been trying to become more diverse and American, and there have been some successes. For example, this year’s Co-Chairs for the first time were a mixed team of Germans and Americans. Another example is a cooperation between the German and the US military, bringing soldiers from both sides of the Atlantic to the conference. And the Heinrich Böll Foundation Washington, DC, provided financial support to six American students from different US states to attend the conference. Still, there is more to be done to increase the conference’s impact in fostering diverse exchange and mutual understanding.

Beyond the GAC, there is a more general takeaway: it is worthwhile to reach out to people outside the existing transatlantic bubble. As members of this bubble ourselves, we should try to incorporate this effort into our everyday work. The 2023 GAC’s motto is well-suited: “Think Beyond!”