Merkel and Trump: Awkward Partners in Leadership

Merkel and Trump: Awkward Partners in Leadership

The first meeting of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel was an awkward affair, from the American president’s lack of response to the German chancellor’s offer of a handshake in front of dozens of cameras, to his bad joke that being wiretapped by the Obama Administration was “one thing” he and the chancellor had in common.

Look at Merkel’s facial expressions when Trump makes that joke. The National Security Agency’s surveillance of Germans including the chancellor did indeed cause the biggest crisis in U.S.-German relations of the Obama Administration, one that has been papered over more than resolved. Meanwhile, Trump’s spurious claims he was spied on during the campaign have caused an international incident with the British. Rather than apologize to London, Trump blamed his source at Fox News.

Overall, the meeting between the leaders seemed to go about as well as could be expected – the awkwardness was inevitable. With Barack Obama out of office, the European Union’s most powerful politician is left as the leader of the liberal West. Donald Trump is the leader of an other West – an old ethnonationalist one reanimated by the populist backlash to immigration and the globalized economy. Trumpworld is naturally hostile to the liberal post-nationalist European Union in which German power is embedded; Germany is naturally hostile to the illiberal nationalism of Trumpworld.

Trump is the weak president of a sharply divided country. As an idiosyncratic outsider, he faces major challenges in executing a revolution in American foreign policy without like-minded cadres to fill the Executive Branch – instead, he is transforming the State Department by not staffing it, offering up a budget that would eviscerate State and other agencies to boost military spending, and demonizing the media, the intelligence agencies, and the judiciary in the name of keeping the American people safe. Trump’s personnel choices, even within the White House, include a mix of the highly capable (H.R. McMaster, Fiona Hill) and the highly disturbing (Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Michael Anton). In some areas, policy may run smoothly despite the president’s sound and fury. But Trump is still the president, and the president’s words decide administration policy. As Thomas Wright points out, this will be decisive in a crisis.

Merkel won three national elections with a knack for finding the center of German politics and providing a safe pair of hands in a world in flux. In her third term, she has shown tremendous moral leadership on Russia and refugees, bringing Europe along far more successfully on the former than the latter. If she is in the fight for her political life now due to a populist backlash on the right, her plausible rival for the chancellery, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, is just as committed a liberal European as she is. Despite some significant medium-term challenges, Germany is in pretty good shape with a relatively strong political consensus.

Merkel has dispatched or managed “macho” men before – Gerhard Schröder, Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, Nicolas Sarkozy, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. If anything, the inexperienced Trump is more intimidated by the long-serving chancellor. But while Germany and the United States both need each other, these needs are of a different degree. Germany relies on the U.S. security guarantee, signals intelligence against a very real terrorism threat, and the U.S. market for its exports – which are two-and-a-half times as large as U.S. exports to Germany, an impressive figure for a country a quarter of the size of America. The United States relies on Germany to help keep Europe stable and prosperous – but beyond Germany itself, Europe hasn’t been particularly stable or prosperous in recent years, buffeted by economic crises, Russian aggression in the east, refugee inflows, and right-wing populists who claimed a major scalp by winning the Brexit vote.

On the positive side, Trump praised Germany for doing “an incredible job training… and employing its manufacturing and industrial workforce,” as he stressed his administration “is in the process of rebuilding the American industrial base.” His rhetoric focused as usual on jobs, strength, and his own popularity, but he gave support to Merkel’s leadership on Ukraine and Germany’s commitment to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Merkel reiterated Germany’s thankfulness to the United States for the Marshall Plan aid and its support in the Cold War and unification, and emphasized Germany’s commitment to meet NATO’s 2 percent of GPD defense spending benchmark by 2024. She defended the European Union, freedom of movement within it, and aid to refugee-producing countries. She gamely turned a question about Trump’s style to a tribute to diversity in politics: “People are different, people have different abilities, have different traits of character, have different origins, have found their way into politics along different pathways – that is diversity, which is good.”

Trump has not yet revolutionized U.S. foreign policy, and it remains to see how serious or successful his efforts may be. But even muddling through, as an election year in Germany and the first year of the Trump Presidency, this is going to be a challenging year for the U.S.-German relationship.

The German election can be expected to produce biting criticism of the thin-skinned U.S. president from German politicians, though Merkel herself will be careful. Her rival Martin Schulz may well pretend he is running against Trump, however.

Milder German swipes at the president are already well underway. At the press conference on Friday, German journalists asked Trump about his wiretapping accusations and his hostility to press diversity. Trump’s understanding of NATO seems to be that Germany and other countries “owe” America “vast sums” of money; German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen clarified Sunday that “there is no debt account at NATO.” U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had anti-protectionism language dropped from the communiqué at the Germany-hosted G20 finance ministers’ summit over the weekend. Germany’s Wolfgang Schäuble remarked, “Maybe one or the other important member state needs to get a sense of how international cooperation works.”

If Schröder’s 2002 re-election campaign against the backdrop of the Bush Administration’s march to the Iraq War gives any indication, it is only so long until someone gets compared to Hitler. Then things could get really awkward.