Donald Trump attacks Germany wherever he can. The close Obama advisor Ben Rhodes reveals what would change under a Biden administration – and how the ex-president keeps in touch with the still-chancellor.
Donald Trump’s term in office severely damaged German-American relations. Hardly a month goes by without the US President complaining bitterly about German defense spending, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline or trade policy.
Under a US government led by Joe Biden, the relationship would improve suddenly, says Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s close advisor, in an interview with t-online. In it, the former Deputy National Security Advisor to the White House describes the ongoing dispute over German defense spending as “not even one of the ten most important issues between the US and Germany”. In the interview, Rhodes also talks about his view of Angela Merkel, whom he describes as the moral leader of the free world and reveals how Obama and Merkel still keep in touch.
t-online: Mr. Rhodes, in November 2016, shortly after Donald Trump was elected, you traveled to Berlin with Barack Obama. At that time you raised your glass to Angela Merkel, or as you put it: To the leader of the free world! Did the Chancellor live up to your expectations?
Rhodes: I think so. I was impressed that she knew exactly what kind of President Donald Trump would be. French President Emmanuel Macron wanted to ensnare Trump and then British Prime Minister Theresa May wanted to befriend him, but Angela Merkel knew better from the start. Anyone who wants to defend their own interests and values must not ingratiate themselves with Trump, but must stand up for what he believes in. She has stood up for liberal values and the international order when no one else of her caliber has.
Does that make her the leader of the free world?
You cannot play the role of a US president, Germany is not big enough for that. But if you ask me who the moral leader of the free world is, it has without a doubt been Angela Merkel for the past four years.
Ben Rhodes, 42, is one of Barack Obama’s most important advisors. He served the US President as Deputy National Security Advisor for the entire eight years in office. Rhodes wrote key foreign policy speeches for the president and negotiated rapprochement with Cuba. After leaving the White House, he founded an NGO and works for Obama’s foundation.
Where would you have wished for a stronger leadership role as the “moral leader of the world”?
I expect more leadership from Germany on the question of democracy in Europe, when it comes to Viktor Orbán in Hungary or now about the situation in Belarus. The EU is ultimately about democracy and not just about being a club. Merkel emphasizes European values, but she could certainly have put more pressure on Orbán or, in Belarus, on Lukashenko. Just one example: Orbán misused EU funds for corrupt purposes, there would have been leverage. It would be easier for her to take a tough stance if there was a US president who would also push for democracy to be preserved.
Rhodes (center) during Obama visit to the Chancellery (November 2016): “Merkel knew better from the start.” (Source: Mika Schmidt / Pool / Getty Images)
Under Trump, however, Germany has become a target of criticism: because of insufficient defense spending, because of Nord Stream 2 and more generally because of trade and customs policy. What will change if Joe Biden wins the election?
We in the Obama administration were also concerned with many of these issues. But they were rather secondary. Under Trump, they defined the relationship. Trump is clearly personally hostile to Merkel. The mere fact that he sent Richard Grenell to Berlin as ambassador, who was primarily supposed to torment the Germans, speaks volumes. These are not the important issues at all. Of course we want all NATO partners to meet the two percent target, but Germany’s importance for America and the world does not depend on it. This is not even one of the top ten issues between the US and Germany.
What is more important?
We have to work together against climate change, we have to work together to strengthen the world’s democracies, we have to work together to regulate the technological revolution. We need to develop some kind of common vision of China. Defense spending is not really relevant to this. This subject won’t be nearly as important under a President Biden.
When it comes to foreign policy, many Americans share Trump’s isolationist stance. They think it’s good that the president is withdrawing troops from Germany.
I think Americans are fed up with wars above all. Let’s be honest: the last wars have failed in terrible ways. I don’t think the troop presence in Germany is important. If you ask the citizens whether soldiers should come home, they of course say yes. But if you ask them if they want strong alliances, they’ll say yes too. It’s about the wars. Ironically, that’s where Trump doesn’t have much to show. He talks about it a lot, but he does nothing to end the wars we are fighting. That’s why he prefers to withdraw troops from Germany.
Will America ever return as a superpower?
I don’t think America will ever become the same superpower as it was before Trump. This has to do with Trump’s legacy, but also with the fact that America’s position was somewhat artificial after the end of the Cold War. The idea of a nation so dominating the fate of the world can only be temporary. And with the Iraq war, we accelerated the end of that notion. I hope that we are the most influential nation in the world and that we can mobilize for common action.
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That wouldn’t be the worst idea in the corona pandemic, for example.
Imagine the pandemic with an ordinary US president, not even Barack Obama, just an ordinary president. He would have worked with China from the start, but also with important countries such as Germany to find solutions for global supply chains, worldwide travel, and the coordination of lockdown measures. Not only would that have saved the lives of tens of thousands of Americans, but it would have reduced economic crises and deaths worldwide. Such an America, which enables joint action in a pandemic or climate change, or fights less in the Middle East, is still in the interests of the world.
Obama’s last visit to Berlin as US President (November 2016): Dinner at the Adlon. (Source: Guido Bergmann / Federal Government)
How much contact does Obama have with Merkel?
Sometimes you talk on the phone. I’ll arrange the talks. He always tries to get in touch with her when an election has taken place or when it is her birthday. They’re not making plans because both of them are aware that she is still in office and that there is another president in the United States. He has no closer contact with any other head of government than with Merkel and Justin Trudeau …
… the Canadian Prime Minister. What is Obama talking to the Chancellor about?
I still remember the last contact. In the spring he sent me an article about how Merkel’s handling of Covid shows success and told me that he then wanted to speak to her to pay her his respect and to tell her: He was not surprised that a scientist was good with the pandemic. This is just one example of the way he stays in contact with Angela Merkel.
Mr. Rhodes, thank you for talking to us.
In the first part of the t-online interview, Rhodes talked about the US presidential election and why both he and Obama feared the continued existence of US democracy.