Donald Trump openly chastised America's closest allies in the 2017 NATO summit, asking them to "contribute their fair share" and his pointman in Berlin has reinforced the divisive narrative and now there are calls for him to be sent back home.
BERLIN — The signs were ominous. If US president Donald Trump were to stick to his election pledges, there was a deep concern in Europe of a very different relationship with Washington.
When Trump began criticising German Chancellor Angela Merkel's immigration policy and the general European foreign policy outlook towards the rest of the world, there were murmurs at the Bundestag in Berlin that the old alliance, forged in fire after the Second World War, was shaking.
Good cop-bad-cop roles were assumed: Merkel would be firm and French President Emmanuel Macron would play friend.
Dr Henning Riecke of the foreign policy think tank Deutsche Gesselschaft fur Auswartige Politik (German Society for Foreign Policy) says, "Trump was seen as unpredictable, he had been highly critical of European Union, so it was to be expected that he might be a difficult president for the Germans. But the people in the government wanted to see how his presidency develop first, and to meet the people who would be their working contacts."
Europe couldn't compete in this new ball game for long though. In Germany, matters soon got worse.
"In the first two years, there was attention on the friction between Trump and the more traditional foreign policy thinkers around him," Dr Riecke adds.
In May 2018, Trump's new ambassador, Richard Grenell, a staunch conservative, took office in Berlin. His office sat in a prime location just next to the Brandenburg Gate, symbolising the role the US played in liberating Germany from Nazi rule at the end of the Second World War.
"People in Berlin knew beforehand, that Grenell is no diplomat. He is a Trump loyalist, a person prone to seek publicity, a TV man – it was to be expected that he would not mitigate Trump's message but deliver it with full force," says Dr Riecke.
After all, 'alles war nicht in ordnung,' or in English, 'all was not in order' – and that's a major German peeve, everything has to be in order here. The nation was just recovering after the Great Migration – welcoming nearly two million people into the country, housing them, teaching them the language, and helping them integrate. That exercise nearly toppled the government, and much of that was because the country almost cracked under pressure.
They like having order here – they like it when life carries on as clockwork.
So who was this Trump crony threatening to shake up the ordnung?
Fifty-two-year-old ambassador Richard Grenell, formerly a strategic communication consultant, with a long history of working for various Republican party hawks, was also a regular contributor for the conservative Fox News outlet.
Under the Bush administration, Grenell was on the diplomatic team of four different US Ambassadors at the UN at a time when the US pursued "cowboy diplomacy," a shoot first ask questions later sort of foreign policy.
What Grenell said
Grenell wasn't going to fall far from the tree; within the first few hours of assuming office, he offended businessmen and diplomats with a tweet saying, “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”
Some politicians in Germany suggested Grenell needed some training in diplomacy, some even went as far as suggesting the German foreign ministry summon the American ambassador to explain his comments.
That was in May 2018, and in June, things got worse.
Grenell, while being interviewed by right-wing news outlet Brietbart, openly expressed his desire to support conservatives across Europe. His comments were described as a breach of diplomatic protocol, which required ambassadors to be politically neutral in the domestic politics of the countries where they serve.
Former leader of the Social Democrats in Germany, Martin Schulz, told an American news outlet, "What this man is doing is unheard of in international diplomacy. If a German ambassador were to say in Washington that he is there to boost the Democrats, he would have been kicked out immediately."
Grenell's interference in German political and economic affairs didn't stop there.
In November last year, he criticised Merkel's immigration policy, while unfavourably comparing her to the then recently elected Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz, who was elected on a strong anti-immigration mandate. He made these comments on Fox News, which in Berlin were seen with disgust, as a call for change of government.
Then in January this year, he openly criticised the German-Russian Nordstream gas pipeline project, going as far as writing threatening letters to politicians and businesses about the possibility of them facing sanctions.
In an interview with the German newspaper Handlesblatt, while talking about European companies participating in the construction he said, they are "always in danger, because sanctions are always possible."
Since Grenell conveys Trumps messages, it is clear that he is criticizing German immigration policy and that he relays the American unhappiness about Nord Stream 2, Dr Riecke says.
Nord Stream 2 is a gas pipeline project that connects Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, the project is a private initiative but essential for Germany's energy security. Its predecessor Nord Stream already connects the two countries, and carries 55 billion cubic metres of gas annually, the majority stakeholder for this project is the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Germany is in the middle of Energiewende, its energy transition policy, marking a shift from coal and nuclear towards green power sources. But it's falling short and for seamless industrial production and domestic consumption, the country desperately relies on Russian gas.
Trump's anti-Nord Stream policy and Grenell's sanctions threat has made German politicians weary.
"The style is not nice, but the substance is understandable. His threats, though, are not a smart strategy, possibly more designed to impress Trump than to achieve a foreign policy goal: They will backfire and harden the German attitude," Dr Riecke warns.
Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer, Merkel's successor at the Christian Democrat Union told reporters, "the American Ambassador operates in a, shall I say, somewhat unusual diplomatic manner."
Tearing up the rulebook
"The problems for transatlantic relations come from different attitudes towards trade and security, most of the problems are older than Trump. The current crisis comes from the US president’s policy style, his harsh mode of negotiating, and his willingness to leave stable partnerships behind, if he doesn't like the negotiated outcome," says Dr Riecke.
There's still a sense of 'waking after a concussion' in Berlin, dim signs of a new, more apt, way of dealing with this new 'shooting from the hip' American diplomat.
The Der Speigel magazine published a profile of the ambassador in January, they interviewed 30 American and German diplomats, cabinet members, lawmakers, high-ranking officials, lobbyists and think tank experts.
The magazine claimed that "almost all of these sources paint an unflattering portrait of the ambassador, one remarkably similar to Donald Trump, the man who sent him to Berlin. A majority of them describe Grenell as a vain, narcissistic person who dishes out aggressively, but can barely handle criticism."
The profile claimed that Grenell is politically isolated in Berlin because of his association with the far-right Alternative for Germany Party, causing the leaders of the mainstream German parties, including the Chancellor herself, to avoid contact with him.
Dr Riecke rationalises some of these fears,"Grenell is only transporting that [Trump's policies] to Germany. Besides, there is a very professional team of diplomats in the embassy, who have much closer relations with the Germans. I would assume that the transatlantic relations can recover, but it will be harder the longer the crisis lasts. It will work out fine only if the Germans move in same areas as well, that the Americans rightly criticise, especially defense spending,"
But some German politicians have decided which side of the fence they want to be on.
The strongest reaction came from Wolfgang Kubicki, deputy chairman of the left-wing Free Democrats party (FDP).
Kubicki has called on German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to declare Ambassador Richard Grenell 'persona non-grata,' which made headlines across Germany, Europe and the US.
Kubicki's comments as carried in German news outlets made clear a strong opposition to interference in internal and foreign policy. "Any US diplomat who acts like a high commissioner of an occupying power must learn that our tolerance also knows its limits," said Kubicki.
Soon Carsten Schneider of the Social Democrats party followed up, in comments to the German news agency DPA, Schneider said, "Mr Grenell is a complete diplomatic failure."
Martin Schulz, the former head of the Social Democratic Party, compared Ambassador Grenell's behavior to that of "a right-wing extremist colonial officer."
Although members of the ruling CDU party have remained on the fence and advocated rational approach, it's not long before Germany would have to rethink its policy towards the US.
However, if Trump were to be elected for a second term, Europe would definitely have to chart a new plan, for now, however, the rulebook is torn with not much else on the cards but the waiting game.
In Dr Riecke's closing arguments he suggests Germany might have to redefine its transatlantic policy, "Trump is now surrounded by loyalists, no longer checked by more reasonable foreign policy players. So, for the remaining tenure, which might last until 2024, transatlantic relations will go downhill. It might be that Germany looks for other partners in that period, or builds up a more independent European Union, not so much in security policy, but in the context of overall shifting power relations – where America is in need of allies. Europeans might attempt to push back and to define German and European interest more clearly."
TRT World's request for an interview with US Ambassador Richard Grenell was denied.