Germany tests Trump country as nervous allies ponder his chances
Bloomberg September 15, 2023
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is in the U.S. this week to take the political pulse of Germany’s most important ally. But her first stop wasn’t Washington. It was Austin, Tex., for a meeting with a governor who’s one of the country’s most conservative.
Just over a year before an election that may bring Donald Trump back to the White House, U.S. allies in Europe are rushing to figure out what that might mean and how to prepare for it.
So Baerbock, a former leader of the Green Party known for her “feminist foreign policy” and support of the rights of immigrants - and for tough public sparring with opponents - spent an hour in the governor’s mansion Tuesday chatting cordially with Greg Abbott, a Republican who has backed the U.S.’s most restrictive limits on abortion and deployed barbed wire to keep migrants from crossing the border.
From there, she stopped for beers and barbecue, rode in a self-driving car and toured an Air Force base before heading to Houston for a meeting with the democratic mayor. Then it was off to Fox News for a live TV interview.
Texas is “a bellwether for America and for the future,” said Baerbock, 42, who spent a year in Florida as a high school exchange student in the 1990s but is making her first visit to the Lone Star State. “It’s a state of extremes in a country of extremes.”
That’s an America that makes many in Europe nervous. U.S. allies are still nursing wounds from Trump’s first term, during which he berated them for not doing enough to provide for their own security and threatened to dump the NATO alliance, not to mention pulling out of diplomatic deals and tossing out trade agreements. The prospect of a second term is a matter of acute anxiety in capitals across Europe, according to officials.
While Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz says he prefers Joe Biden over his predecessor and hopes he wins a second term, others in Berlin aren’t taking chances.
A senior lawmaker said a key lesson from the shock of Trump’s first term is that Germany needs to prepare well in advance this time. That’s led to quieter outreach to Republicans by senior officials and legislators in recent months.
“The transatlantic friendship is not limited to one party,” Baerbock told a German newspaper in an interview published during her visit. “We’re not naive but we don’t let ourselves be driven crazy, either.”
Texas, she said, “is a state where you can see and experience a lot.”
In La Grange, a small town on the prairie about an hour outside Austin, she stopped at Back Porch BBQ and Grill - whose motto is “Let’s Meat” - for a dinner of smoked brisket and spare ribs that would have mortified the vegetarians in her party back home.
Baerbock “got behind the bar and served some beers, and really enjoyed herself,” said owner Derrick Burnett. The visitors tried fried okra for the first time and “really liked it,” he said.
In addition to offering refreshments, Baerbock was careful to underline the importance of the transatlantic relationship on her visit to the U.S. heartland. At Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, she hailed decades of training conducted there for pilots from Germany, without which “we would not be in a position to further strengthen security here in Europe.”
Not averse to a little political theater of her own - she’s seen as a potential candidate for chancellor after leading the Greens to third place in 2021 - she climbed into one of the T-6 propeller training planes to get an explanation of the instruments from the pilot.
From Texas, she headed for Washington to meet legislators - all Republicans. Baerbock explained that she’s met Democrats before and is in regular touch with the administration, so she’s focusing on meeting people on the other side of the aisle. One gave her tips on how to handle her first-ever interview on conservative network Fox.
On Capitol Hill, she pushed back against the populist criticism that Europe isn’t bearing enough of the burden of defending itself and Ukraine. Fresh from a trip to Kyiv, she argued that Europe is paying not only for military and economic aid, but also for housing and feeding the refugees from the war.
“Do I think that Germany’s foreign minister and a Green Party leader is trying to make inroads with the next president of the United States, Donald Trump? Yes, but it’s not as politically calculating as you might think,” said Ric Grenell, who was Trump’s ambassador to Germany and has been mentioned as a member of his administration if he wins a second term. “The Greens recognize the importance of putting Germany First.”
If Baerbock liked any of the policies she saw in Texas, she didn’t let on. It’s a state “marked by insane social tensions,” she said in the German newspaper interview, in which she also slipped in a dig at the lack of universal health care in the U.S.
But on Fox News, she was all smiles. She went to Texas “because politics is about the people,” she said, delivering lines in English that would have made any politician proud. “I really wanted to see the diversity of your wonderful, your beautiful country.”
Bloomberg’s Julie Fine contributed to this report.