Richard Grenell is stepping down from his role as U.S. ambassador to Germany. The move ends one of the most effective American ambassadorships to Berlin in recent memory.
Grenell arguably has done more than any other American official, with the possible exception of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, to call out the duplicity, hypocrisy and recklessness of Germany’s foreign policy establishment.
On a wide range of geopolitical issues — from relations with China, Iran and Russia to anti-Semitism, climate change, defense spending (NATO), energy dependence (Nord Stream), globalism, Hezbollah, Huawei and mass migration — Grenell embarrassed German leaders by showing that their words and actions do not match.
The greatest point of contention in U.S. relations with Germany is Berlin’s refusal to honor its pledge to spend 2% of its GDP on defense. Germany, the largest and wealthiest country in the European Union, currently lacks a functioning Air Force and Navy and is completely dependent on U.S. security guarantees. Germany’s unwillingness to pay for its own defense has led to charges that it is “free-riding” on American security. Grenell consistently drew attention to this untenable arrangement, much to the anger of German elites.
Closely related to the defense spending issue is Germany’s increasing energy dependency on Russia. Despite opposition from the United States and 15 European countries, Germany is determined to complete the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, which will further increase Russia’s leverage as an energy supplier to Europe. Grenell placed a spotlight on the inherent contradiction that while the United States is spending billions of dollars annually to defend Europe against growing threats from Russia, German energy policies are increasing Russia’s grip over Europe.
Grenell’s skillful use of Twitter enabled him to bypass Germany’s mainstream media and offer an alternative to the official narratives parroted by Germany’s political and media establishment. German elites frequently responded with ad hominem attacks; Grenell remained above the fray and stayed focused on the policy issues.
Grenell’s greatest achievement during his roughly two years as ambassador was his tireless pursuit of the American interest and his unwillingness to appease Germany’s anti-American establishment.
Cliff Sims, a former advisor to President Trump, encapsulated the essence of Grenell’s diplomatic style:
“The mandate of a diplomat is usually to be diplomatic. Trumpian foreign policy is obviously more confrontational. Ric is willing to be publicly confrontational with his host country if it’s in America’s national interest in a way that is not typical historically but directly reflects the way Trump operates.”
Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at the University of Cologne, said that Grenell has had an important impact on shaping the public debate in Germany:
“He had no qualms about putting the German government under pressure in public, which might not have always been the smartest thing to do. But everyone knew Trump listened closely to him. I think they could have used that connection a lot better. In any case, Grenell has been highly effective in getting Germany to talk more about defense spending and about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The public opinion on those two issues has changed, and Grenell certainly had a role in that.”
Following is a brief selection of Grenell’s tweets, statements and interactions with Germany’s political establishment on a variety of issues:
On May 8, 2018, Grenell’s first day as U.S. Ambassador to Germany, he made a splash with a tweet that the Trump administration was serious about enforcing sanctions against Iran: “As @realDonaldTrump said, US sanctions will target critical sectors of Iran’s economy. German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.”
The tweet, which came after President Trump announced that he was pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal, was greeted with indignation:
Former German Ambassador to the United States, Wolfgang Ischinger, tweeted: “Ric: my advice, after a long ambassadorial career: explain your own country’s policies, and lobby the host country – but never tell the host country what to do, if you want to stay out of trouble. Germans are eager to listen, but they will resent instructions.”
Green Party lawmaker Omid Nouripour said: “Good cooperation means that one does not drive a highly aggressive, ruthless policy towards our security interests and before you even arrive here, you threaten the German economy. It’s simply not a tone of cooperation and we have to say so very clearly.”
The then leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Andrea Nahles, added: “It’s not my task to teach people about the fine art of diplomacy, especially not the U.S. ambassador. But he does appear to need some tutoring.”
Grenell responded by tweeting that what he wrote was “the exact language sent out from the White House talking points & fact sheet.”
After former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel insinuated that the United States was no a friend of Germany, Grenell tweeted:
“Gabriel is now in Iran meeting with the regime to talk about doing more trade deals…. this after an Iranian ‘diplomat’ was arrested in Germany for giving an explosive device to 2 people on their way to blow up a convention in Paris.”
Grenell also said that months of pressure from the United States led Germany finally to ban Iran’s Mahan Air, which is linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF). German officials countered that they took the initiative on their own.
Grenell was tireless in his efforts to pressure the German government to outlaw Hezbollah — Arabic for “The Party of Allah” — in Germany. On December 19, 2019, the German parliament, known as the Bundestag, approved a three-page resolution — “Effective Action against Hezbollah” — that called on the German government to ban the activities of the Iran-backed Lebanese terrorist group on German territory. According to the Bundestag, a complete organizational ban of Hezbollah is (supposedly) impossible because the group’s structures in Germany are “not currently ascertainable.”
On April 30, 2020, after years of equivocating, the German government announced a compromise measure between German lawmakers who want to take a harder line against Iran and those who do not. The ban falls far short of a complete prohibition on Hezbollah and appears aimed at providing the German government with political cover that allows Berlin to claim that it has banned the group even if it has not.
The ban does not require the closure of Hezbollah mosques or cultural centers, nor does it require that members of the group be deported. The ban also does not prohibit Hezbollah operatives from travelling to Germany.
Grenell has been an indefatigable supporter of Israel. Germany claims that the security of Israel is a fundamental element of its Staatsräson, or “reason of state.” German foreign policy, however, is decidedly anti-Israel. Grenell frequently reminded German leaders that their words and actions regarding Israel do not match.
In recent years, Germany has approved scores of anti-Israel UN resolutions. In May 2016, Germany voted in favor of an especially disgraceful UN resolution, co-sponsored by the Arab group of states and the Palestinian delegation, that singled out Israel at the annual assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) as the world’s only violator of “mental, physical and environmental health.”
Much of Germany’s political establishment appears to be fundamentally anti-Israel. In March 2019, for instance, the Bundestag overwhelmingly rejected a resolution by the Free Democratic Party (FDP) to urge Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to reverse its anti-Israel voting record at the United Nations.
In February 2019, on the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier congratulated, “also in the name of my compatriots,” the Iranian regime, which openly seeks Israel’s destruction. The move was defended by much of the German establishment as “diplomatic custom.”
In February 2020, Grenell rebuked the German government for its plans to celebrate the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran:
“Germany has a moral responsibility to say to Iran very firmly and clearly that it is unacceptable to deny basic human rights to your people, or kill protesters in the streets or push gay people off buildings. Celebrating the regime’s ongoing existence sends the opposite message.”
President Trump’s Middle East Peace Plan
On January 28, 2020, the Trump administration unveiled its Middle East peace plan. The proposal was widely criticized in Germany. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said: “Only a negotiated two-state solution, acceptable to both sides, can lead to a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”
- Bundestag member Norbert Röttgen tweeted: “The so-called #PeacePlan is to the detriment of #Palestine and presented as an ultimatum depicts a setback in the conflict. It is primarily a contribution to the ongoing election campaigns in the #USA & #Israel and a welcome diversion from domestic crises in both states.”
Grenell replied: “Abbas is in his 15th year of a 4 year term. The US didn’t cause this conflict but we are trying to solve it. Maybe some help?”
- The director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Volker Perthes, tweeted: “#Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ is essentially a reflection of Netanyahu’s ideas for #Israel’s relation with Palestinians, packaged as a US ‘peace plan’. Don’t take it lightly though. It will shape developments on the ground, as well as international law debates and practice.”
Grenell replied: “Europeans who criticize this good initiative from the sidelines, while failing to offer any ideas of their own should be dismissed and ignored for wanting the failing status quo. Less talk, more action.”
In June 2018, a month after assuming his ambassadorship, Grenell, in an interview with Breitbart, said that he wanted to empower European conservatives:
“I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders. I think there is a groundswell of conservative policies that are taking hold because of the failed policies of the left.
“There’s no question about that and it’s an exciting time for me. I look across the landscape and we’ve got a lot of work to do but I think the election of Donald Trump has empowered individuals and people to say that they can’t just allow the political class to determine before an election takes place, who’s going to win and who should run.
“That’s a very powerful moment when you can grasp the ability to see past the group-think of a very small elitist crowd telling you you have no chance to win or you’ll never win, or they mock you early on.”
Grenell’s seemingly innocuous comments stoked hyperbolic outrage:
- Martin Schulz, a former leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, said: “Grenell does not behave like a diplomat, but like a far-right colonial officer.”
- Left Party lawmaker Sahra Wagenknecht called for Grenell’s expulsion: “Anyone who, like US Ambassador Richard Grenell, thinks that he can determine who governs Europe, can no longer remain in Germany as a diplomat.”
- A parliamentarian for the Social Democrats, Johannes Kahrs, tweeted: “If this is how it was said, then this man should leave the country.”
- Sevim Dagdelen of the opposition Left party described Grenell as Trump’s “regime change envoy.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly urged Germany against allowing the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to participate in its next-generation mobile network. The U.S. government has warned that Beijing could use Huawei technology to conduct espionage or cyber sabotage.
The President of Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service, Bruno Kahl, also advised against a role for Huawei. “Infrastructure is not a suitable area for a group that cannot be trusted fully,” he said.
In February 2020, after China threatened to retaliate against German carmakers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling conservatives announced a compromise measure that stopped short of banning Huawei.
In response, Grenell tweeted:
“@realDonaldTrump just called me from AF1 and instructed me to make clear that any nation who chooses to use an untrustworthy 5G vendor will jeopardize our ability to share Intelligence and information at the highest level.”
The tweet elicited a series of responses:
- Left Party lawmaker Steffen Bockhahn tweeted: “Mister Ambassador, you should know, that parliamentarians are free in mind and in decision. In old Europe we want it like that and we like diplomatic diplomats. It makes real and open-minded conversation much easier. Regards!”
Grenell replied: “You want a US that doesn’t pressure you to pay your NATO obligation, looks the other way when you buy too much Russian gas, doesn’t demand you take back your Nazi prison guard living in NYC, accepts your higher car tariffs and still sends 50,000 troops to your country.”
- Bundestag member Alexander Graf Lambsdorff tweeted: “Is there a US vendor the President would care to recommend instead? Does he have a list of ‘trustworthy vendors’? Which criteria does he apply to determine ‘trustworthiness’?”
Grenell replied: “It’s odd that you don’t think about European solutions. Do you take any responsibility or just blame the US?”
- A director of the French search engine Qwant, Guillaume Champeau, tweeted: “According to the U.S. ambassador to Germany, the U.S. is threatening to withhold [intelligence] information from states that have Huawei in their 5G infrastructure.”
Grenell replied: “According to this guy, the US doesn’t get to react to policies we find dangerous. I find it offensive that you think the US cooperation must stay the same no matter what you do. We call that taking us for granted.”
- German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, a close confident of Chancellor Angela Merkel, created a false equivalency between the United States, which guarantees Germany’s security, and China. On a television talk show, he suggested that American telecommunications companies posed just as much of a security threat as ones from China.
Grenell responded that Altmaier’s comparison was “an insult to the thousands of American troops who help ensure Germany’s security and to the millions of Americans committed to a strong Western alliance. These claims are likewise an insult to the millions of Chinese citizens denied basic freedoms and unjustly imprisoned by the CCP [Communist Party of China].”
At a NATO summit in Wales in 2014, members agreed to meet a goal of spending at least 2% of their GDP on defense within the next decade.
On March 18, 2019, German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz announced that Germany would not be spending two percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. He said that the share of defense expenditure in GDP would rise to 1.37% in the short term, but decrease to 1.25% by 2023. Chancellor Angela Merkel had pledged to increase spending to 1.5% by 2024.
“NATO members have clearly committed to moving towards two percent by 2024 and not moving away from it. The fact that the Federal Government is even considering reducing its already unacceptable contributions to military readiness is a worrying signal from Germany to its 28 NATO allies.”
The deputy speaker of the Bundestag, Wolfgang Kubicki, called for Grenell to be expelled from Germany:
“If a U.S. diplomat acts like a high commissioner of an occupying power, he will have to learn that our tolerance has its limits. It is no longer tolerable that the US ambassador intervenes again in political questions of the sovereign Federal Republic. Germany should not tolerate this improper behavior for reasons of self-respect.”
The SPD parliamentary director, Carsten Schneider, also rejected Grenell’s criticism: “Mr. Grenell is a total diplomatic failure. With his repeated clumsy provocations, Mr. Grenell damages the transatlantic relationship.”
In November 2019, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said that Germany would not meet its NATO defense spending target until 2031.
Nord Stream 2 Gas Pipeline
Grenell worked tirelessly to stop the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline directly linking Russia to Germany. The €9.5 billion ($10.5 billion) pipeline would double shipments of Russian natural gas to Germany by transporting the gas under the Baltic Sea. Opponents of the pipeline warn that it will give Russia a stranglehold over Germany’s energy supply.
On December 20, 2019, President Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense spending bill, which included Nord Stream 2 sanctions language. The measure previously cleared the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate by overwhelming margins. The American sanctions forced Switzerland’s Allseas Group SA, which was laying the sub-sea pipes, to abandon work, throwing the project into disarray.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted: “European energy policy is decided in Europe, not in the US. We reject external interference and extraterritorial sanctions.”
Grenell, in an interview with Bild, the largest-circulation newspaper in Germany, responded:
“This is a longstanding US policy that goes back to the Obama administration. The goal has always been for diversification of Europe’s energy sources and to ensure that not one country or source can build up too much influence on Europe through energy….
“Fifteen European countries, the European Commission and the European Parliament have all expressed their concerns about the project. We have been hearing from our European partners that the United States should support them in their efforts. That is why the sanctions are a very pro-European decision. Currently, there is a lot of talk in Germany about being more for Europe and we believe that when it comes to Nord Stream 2, we have taken an extremely pro-European position. I’ve been hearing all day from European diplomats thanking me for taking this action.”
Richard Herzinger, political correspondent for Die Welt, wrote in support of Grenell:
“U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell said that the Washington sanction decision against the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was ‘a very pro-European decision.’
“American interest in the European gas market is certainly not entirely selfless. In principle, however, Grenell is absolutely right when he rejects the accusation that the sanctions are directed against Europe.
“The German government, most recently in the person of Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, incorrectly presents the U.S. punitive measures as an attack on pan-European energy sovereignty. In truth, it is more Berlin itself that isolates itself in Europe with its stubborn adherence to Nord Stream 2.
“A number of EU governments, especially Poland and the Baltic States, welcome U.S. intervention as a long-awaited step against the expansion of German-Russian energy cooperation, which they see as an eminent threat to their security. The German energy special route has also been met with great skepticism from the EU Commission and the European Parliament, which has spoken out explicitly against the construction of Nord Stream 2.
“Incidentally, the U.S. sanctions are by no means a further outflow of anti-European affectations from Donald Trump. Rather, they were imposed by the U.S. Congress — with an overwhelming majority that includes both Democratic and Republican members. Such punitive measures had already been considered at the time of Obama’s presidency.
“Today, many Europeans believe Washington’s intervention is the last hope of stopping the pipeline project that would dramatically increase Europe’s dependence on Putin’s Russia.”
On May 26, Grenell announced that the United States was preparing additional sanctions to prevent completion of the pipeline. “Germany must stop feeding the beast while at the same time it does not pay enough for NATO,” he said. The German financial newspaper Handelsblatt described the new sanctions as Grenell’s “farewell greeting” (Abschiedsgruß).
Nazi War Criminals
In August 2018, Jakiw Palij, a 95-year-old Nazi collaborator who had lived in New York City for decades, was deported to Germany. Despite a court ordering his deportation in 2004, past American administrations were unsuccessful in removing him. Under orders from President Trump, Grenell secured Palij’s deportation to Germany. Palij died six months later.
On January 10, 2019, Grenell tweeted:
“Former Nazi prison guard Jakiw Palij has died in Germany. I am so thankful to @realDonaldTrump for making the case a priority. Removing the former Nazi prison guard from the US was something multiple Presidents just talked about – but President Trump made it happen.”
“I’m not surprised at all. I think that the American style has always been different from the European one. And it’s OK to have different styles. I’ve always thought that I would be judged by the political class on the progress I make. For too long, we have ignored some problems.
“One example of this is over the Nazi prison guard Jakiw Palij, who had been living in the US and who we wanted to be returned to Germany for a very long time. I was told that the Germans simply didn’t want to make this happen, which I didn’t find to be true — after pushing harder on this topic and after raising it at every meeting across all levels of government. So, is my style more pushy? I believe it is. But it also helps to reform our relationship and make it deeper and stronger.”
In March 2020, a US immigration judge ordered Tennessee resident Friedrich Karl Berger, who served as an armed guard at a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, to be deported to Germany. With Grenell no longer ambassador, it remains unclear if Germany will take Berger back.
Grenell was instrumental in closing a hostel in Berlin that is owned by the government of North Korea. The Cityhostel Berlin funneled approximately €450,000 ($500,000) a year into the coffers of the regime of Kim Jong Un in violation of UN Security Council sanctions.
“US Embassy Berlin has been hard at work getting this hotel shut down. It seems like a no-brainer to us. North Korea is under UN sanctions and the Germans are the Chair of the UN enforcement committee.”
Farewell to Germany
On February 20, 2020, President Trump installed Grenell as the acting director of national intelligence. Grenell was to fulfill his new duties while continuing in his role as ambassador. Almost immediately, German leaders complained that the lack of a full-time ambassador signalled that the United States was downgrading its relationship with Germany.
Bundestag member Alexander Graf Lambsdorff said that the additional post was an “upgrade” for Grenell, but a “downgrade” for Germany: “Even with the greatest effort, it is not possible to coordinate 17 intelligence agencies while maintaining German-American relations.”
Johann Wadephul, Bundestag member for the Christian Democrats, added: “Especially in these times, the transatlantic relationship needs a full-time ambassador.”
A foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats, Nils Schmid, said that the fact that Grenell would continue the post of ambassador from Washington was “an expression of a disdain for Germany.” He added: “U.S. President Donald Trump should appoint a successor who does not make one-sided propaganda, but also campaigns for German positions in Washington.”
On May 24, the German newspaper Die Welt, citing the German Press Agency, reported that Grenell would be stepping down. The announcement generated a range of responses, including:
A fellow at the German Marshall Fund, Noah Barkin, tweeted that Germany would breathe a “sigh of relief” at Grenell’s departure. Grenell replied: “You make a big mistake if you think the American pressure is off. You don’t know Americans.”
German Bundestag member Andreas Nick, tweeted: “For a generation, each and every US Ambassador I got to know personally – career diplomat or political appointee alike – used to leave his post as a highly respected figure and trusted friend of Germany. Now someone leaves issuing threats as if he were representing a hostile power.”
Grenell responded: “You always wanted me to stop asking you publicly to pay your NATO obligations and calling for an end to Nord Stream 2. But these are US policies. And I work for the American people.”
Bundestag member Alexander Graf Lambsdorff admitted that Grenell will be missed because of his authenticity and closeness to President Trump: “In Ambassador Grenell, you knew what the American government thinks and how it acts.”
Julian Röpke, political editor of Bild, Germany’s largest newspaper, tweeted: “With @RichardGrenell, Germany is losing one of the best US Ambassadors to our country ever. Whether it was pressure to stop NordStream2, rethink German-Iranian regime (love) affairs or increase our defense expenditure – he was always on point and acting in the best interest of the United States and Germany. THANKS SO MUCH!”