Germany’s 5G Debate Ought Not Be a Referendum on Donald Trump


Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published in Munich’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung.


Chancellor Angela Merkel can’t seem to make up her mind. For months, her administration, the Germany Parliament, and outside experts have been debating whether to rely on high-risk vendors for the construction of the country’s 5G telecommunications networks. Unfortunately, this important debate keeps getting sidetracked. Because the Trump administration is using another one of its ill-conceived “maximum pressure” campaigns to persuade Germany to ban Huawei, this debate has morphed into a black and white choice between the United States and China. Which country do Germans trust more? Which relationship do Germans value more? With roughly three in four Germans stating that they don’t have confidence in Donald Trump, it doesn’t feel like the U.S. side is positioned to win. But that’s not the point, or it shouldn’t be. Germany’s 5G debate ought not be framed as a referendum on Donald Trump.

At its core, this is a debate about German values and German security as Chancellor Merkel decides whether she wants to continue relying on a Chinese telecom company that China could use for espionage or coercive purposes. The great irony here is that while the Trump administration clearly has strong views on the matter, the United States isn’t promoting an alternative vendor. It doesn’t have one. Europe is home to two of the alternative vendors (and Merkel will meet both of their CEOs this week), and South Korea is home to another. Those facts seem to be getting lost in all the noise — threats from the American side, threats from the Chinese side, and stories in the German press questioning the trustworthiness of Silicon Valley, the U.S. government, and those in Germany that support the U.S. position. To be sure, it is hard to isolate the German debates on 5G from the ailing transatlantic relationship or this week’s revelations about the Swiss encryption firm that was secretly owned by both the CIA and the BND for decades. (To many Germans, this story reinforces the view that American intelligence agencies are around every corner and not to be trusted despite the fact that Germany itself was reportedly a key beneficiary of the operation.) But it is critical that Berlin tune out the noise, hear from other voices, and focus on the fundamentals.

Given that the European project sits at the heart of German foreign and economic policy, the European Union’s position on this issue should count for a lot. After conducting its own assessment, the European Union concluded that suppliers based in a country where there is no “legislative or democratic checks and balances in place” pose a genuine risk. E.U. officials issued guidance, in the form of a “toolbox on 5G,” to help its member states protect themselves from that risk. While the guidance is non-binding, it does urge E.U. members to consider an array of nontechnical questions about potential vendors’ headquarters, relationships with host governments, surveillance rules, and prospects for legal recourse in the face of espionage, sabotage, or coercion. These are the questions that need to be at the center of the German debate.

Berlin may want to hear more from democratic allies who have either recently taken their own decision on 5G or are currently grappling with the issue. Last summer, Australia announced a ban on Huawei. In contrast to the United Kingdom, Australia doesn’t believe that limiting high-risk vendors to only one part of the network — the so-called “edge” — reduces the associated risks. As Simeon Gilding recent wrote in the Strategist, “Geography is not a factor in how core–edge works. The reality is mature 5G networks actually require the collapse of the core–edge distinction.” Beyond examining how two different members of the “five eyes” intelligence alliance reached different conclusions, German policymakers may want to ask their Australian counterparts how their decision has affected their bilateral relationship with China. What kind of fallout they have faced? Was Australia’s economic and trade relationship with China irreparably damaged when it announced the ban? Equally important, what alternatives is Australia now pursuing?

France is another country Germany ought to stay close to. Like Germany, France faces immense pressure from both the United States and China to side with their respective positions on 5G. Unlike Germany, though, only some of France’s networks are currently using Huawei, making the choice somewhat easier. (French telecom giant Orange announced it is likely to stick with Nokia and Ericsson.) That said, to the degree that Europeans are in search of a Europe-wide policy that might draw from the European Union’s vast regulatory powers, France and Germany will have to lead the way. This week’s Franco-German joint parliamentary session in Berlin, which touched on telecommunication issues, was a good start. Down the road and under the right conditions, those two countries might even want to work with the United States to create a viable transatlantic alternative.

Finally, when Germans see the Huawei posters claiming that “5G is about values,” I hope they nod in agreement, but not in the way Chinese state-aligned tech executives mean. As the European Union has stated repeatedly, this debate is about more than technical solutions to technical problems. At its core, it is about democratic nations protecting their societies and economies from authoritarian influence and coercion well into the future. Germans no doubt understood that point well before Huawei’s slick marketing campaign. Ultimately, Berlin must make a 5G decision that respects and protects the values it holds dear.


Julianne Smith is the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund. She was Vice President Joseph Biden’s deputy national security advisor.

Image: Adapted from White House