WASHINGTON — While the strategic consequences of Britain’s impending exit from the European Union are still being sorted on both sides of the Atlantic, one impact is clear: Germany is suddenly a lot more important to the U.S.
Germany now becomes the logical first place for the U.S. to turn because Britain will no longer be at the table for EU decisions, even as Washington maintains a “special relationship” with London based on shared history, values and deep military and intelligence ties.
“The United States and Germany are going to have to become closer strategic partners, closer than we have” been, said Nicholas Burns, former U.S. undersecretary of state and now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “Britain was our strongest institutional link in the EU, and that’s going to be gone.”
Europe’s strongest economy already was taking on a bigger role as a U.S. ally as Chancellor Angela Merkel gave crucial support on international issues such as sanctions against Russia and the Iran nuclear deal. President Barack Obama has forged a closer personal relationship with Merkel than any other European leader, and the two often confer by phone.
Merkel was the first foreign leader Obama called to confer with on the British vote after speaking with British Prime Minister David Cameron.
“The president has deep respect for Chancellor Merkel,” Deputy White House press secretary Eric Schultz told reporters at a briefing on Monday. “I expect the president to continue to be in close touch with Chancellor Merkel” and other U.S. government officials “to be in close touch” with their German counterparts on the British exit.
Where Germany may come up short for the U.S. is in representing the American economic outlook within the EU.
“The British perspective on trade is much closer to Washington’s than it is to Brussels’. It’s a more liberal, free-market approach,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “Within the European discussion, the British voice was one more likely to reflect American thinking than not, and now we’re losing a very important voice.”
Germany’s location in the center of Europe also fosters a different strategic outlook more focused on the continent than the pre-eminence Britain has placed since World War II on relations across the Atlantic.
Its effectiveness as a strategic partner is hampered by the pacifist philosophy that has dominated the country in the post-WWII era and its reluctance to spend on its military. Germany spent less than 1.2 percent of its gross domestic product on defense last year, below NATO’s target minimum of 2 percent. By contrast, Britain spent 2.1 percent of GDP and the U.S. 3.6 percent, according to NATO data.
While Merkel has supported the U.S. push for an assertive response to Russian aggression in Ukraine, Germany is more divided on the stance than the United Kingdom, Burns said. The European Union sanctions against Russia are controversial within Germany.
U.S. officials also were surprised when German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier denounced recent NATO exercises designed to deter Russia from destabilizing Poland and Baltic members of the alliance as “saber-rattling and warmongering.”
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Monday that Putin is doubtless pleased by the Brexit vote since his agenda has been to “cause disruption in the European Union.”
Germany has become more willing to engage in the military arena, providing assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq, forces for peacekeeping in Mali and military cooperation in Syria, said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Still, “they’re not the U.K., and they don’t share the same intelligence,” she added.
Despite recent efforts to improve intelligence-sharing with Germany, the country’s military and intelligence services have never had as close a relationship with the U.S. as Britain and the other English-speaking members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance that also includes Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Britain is likely to continue as a pre-eminent military ally, with its large armed forces and its membership in NATO, the primary U.S. military alliance with Europe. But the European Union is an important channel for coordination of counterterrorism efforts and homeland security regulations, and Germany will be an important intermediary for the U.S., Burns said.
And even Britain’s military strength could diminish under some potential scenarios spawned by the vote to leave the European Union.
“What if Britain begins to fracture? What if Scotland leaves? What if the Irish question re-emerges?” Burns said. “If you look 10 years down the road and see a weaker Britain and a weaker Europe, then you begin to wonder.”