The US ambassador to Germany is demonstrating his president's bleak view that the EU is a dangerous commercial rival free-riding on America's coat-tails, writes Alan Philps
Grenell is tearing up the diplomatic playbook as the true voice of the US administration
The new US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, has been attracting an unusual amount of attention. This is not due to his diplomatic prowess but because he appears to speak as the true voice of the Donald Trump administration, unsweetened by diplomatic niceties.
Mr Grenell has caused outrage in Germany by giving an interview to Breitbart, the far-right website, in which he said he wanted to “empower conservatives throughout Europe”. An implied criticism of the German government – a coalition of centre-right and centre-left – his comments were sharpened by his praise for the Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, as a “rock star”. Mr Kurz, a conservative, rules in coalition with the far-right populist Freedom Party.
His words provoked outrage in Europe and the US in what is seen as a breach of diplomatic convention by expressing a political preference. In practice, ambassadors feel less bound by this convention when they work in a country which they feel is part of their sphere of influence, such as a US envoy in Latin America.
That is exactly how Mr Grenell is being seen in Germany: as an imperial envoy to a vassal state. Or in the words of Martin Schulz, former head of the Germany’s Social Democrats, “a far-right colonial officer”.
Europeans are used to political appointees and donors becoming US ambassadors. Local people and embassy staff may roll their eyes at the envoy’s ignorance but generally these political appointees are guided by professionals and understand that there are limits to what they can express.
Such is not the case with Mr Grenell, a former spokesman for the George W Bush administration at the United Nations, where his tenure overlapped with that of ultra-hawk John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN and now Mr Trump’s national security adviser. Since then, Mr Grenell has been a prominent commentator on Fox News, the president’s favourite channel.
So few people believed him when he made a half-hearted attempt to row back from his statement by saying he would never “endorse candidates or parties”.
Rather, Mr Grenell now seems to building a role as Mr Trump’s shadow in Europe. He barged his way onto the European tour schedule of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, securing an airport handshake in defiance of diplomatic custom. Next week he is due to meet Mr Kurz when he visits Berlin –also an unusual step for a resident ambassador.
So is Mr Grenell the shape of American diplomacy in Europe, where he is a conveyor belt of Washington’s views rather than a discreet intermediary?
His appearance in the news coincides with the rising European profile of Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart boss and Mr Trump’s ideas man in the White House until he was fired from both posts for a stream of indiscretions.
Mr Bannon has long wanted to undermine the European Union, arguing that western civilisation can be saved only if European states reject “globalism” and return to their roots as nationalistic Christian nations – the very structure which caused two world wars in the last century.
He might be very popular with the rising forces of the right in Europe but it is not clear who, if anybody, he represents. The French commentator Natalie Nougayrede suggests he is much more than merely vocal. She questions whether he is actually “the advance guard of a Trumpian onslaught against the European project itself”.
That question is unanswered but the behaviour of Mr Grenell adds urgency to it.
What is not in doubt is that Mr Trump sees Germany, and perhaps the EU as a whole, as a dangerous commercial rival which has been free-riding on America’s defence spending. Mr Trump is pressing for a 25 per cent import tax on luxury German cars until – as he is reported to have told French President Emmanuel Macron – there are no more Mercedes on Fifth Avenue in New York.
And this despite the fact that Daimler, which makes the Mercedes brand, employs 22,000 people making cars and trucks in America.
In Mr Trump’s bleak view of trade, under which any gain for Germany must be a loss for America, this makes sense. But what about the consequences of alienating Washington’s allies?
The effect of Mr Trump's pressure is to make Europeans feel squeezed between Washington and Moscow. His withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has now put the European signatories – Britain, France and Germany – on the same page as Russia and China, who want to preserve it.
Both France and Germany are now keen to explore ways to thaw relations with Vladimir Putin after they entered the deep freeze in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Mr Macron attended the recent St Petersburg Economic Forum with Mr Putin last month, along with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – not a bad turnout for a country that is under US and European sanctions.
While the White House is encouraging what Mr Grenell calls a “groundswell of conservative policies, taking hold because of the failed policies of the left”, the truth is that the European far-right prefers Mr Putin to Mr Trump. It was a Russian bank which financed the French National Front and it is to Austria –where the Freedom Party has a co-operation agreement with Mr Putin’s “party of power” United Russia –that Mr Putin paid a visit on Tuesday.
During that visit, Mr Putin appealed for an end to European sanctions on Russia. No doubt he will one day get his way. With Italy now in the hands of a populist government with strong links to Mr Putin, European unity is fragmenting. Future European sanctions on Russia will probably be vetoed by Rome.
Does America care that sanctions policy – the big stick which the US wields in the world – is being undermined by Washington’s disruption of its EU allies? Apparently not.
Alan Philps is editor of The World Today magazine of international affairs