As she gears up to meet Vladimir Putin in Moscow in May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the self-styled “Queen of Europe’ – has concluded a trip to Washington where she had her first meeting with US President Donald Trump.
Merkel previously had a very close relationship with Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and was widely seen as Obama’s most important foreign policy ally. Given the critical importance of relations with the US for Germany, there is no doubt this close relationship with Obama gave Merkel considerable political standing in Germany and played a key role in securing her position. The political and perhaps psychological importance of this relationship for Merkel is shown by the way Merkel repeatedly sacrificed other relationships and policy positions in order to preserve it.
Thus in 2014 Merkel reversed the longstanding German policy of maintaining close political and commercial relations with Russia by imposing sanctions on Russia during the Ukrainian crisis that year, and in 2015 she backed away from a plan proposed by her Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble to eject Greece from the eurozone to which she had previously appeared to lend support. On both occasions she did this in order to fall into line with Obama’s wishes.
Angela Merkel undoubtedly anticipated that she would be able to forge a similarly strong relationship with Hillary Clinton – a personal friend – once Hillary Clinton had been elected US President.
The election as US President of Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton therefore came as a shock, and Merkel has struggled to come up with a coherent response.
In doing so she has not been helped by absurd suggestions from Donald Trump’s opponents in the US and Europe that following Donald Trump’s election victory she is now the “leader of the free world”, or by the equally misconceived attempt by Barack Obama following the election to enlist her as the guardian of his legacy. As Merkel undoubtedly knows, she lacks the power to do either of these things, and the attempts of others to position her into doing them risk making her relationship with Trump even more fraught than it already is.
Her meeting with Trump in Washington was therefore an attempt to build bridges to the new US President and to try to forge a working relationship with him, even if Merkel undoubtedly knows that this can never be as close as the one she had with Obama.
In the event the meeting can hardly have satisfied her. Instead of building bridges what it showed was the colossal gulf between her and Donald Trump.
Many have spoken of the uneasy body-language and mood of the summit, and much has been made (far too much in my opinion) of Donald Trump’s failure to shake hands with her (for the record I get the impression that Trump is one of those people who simply doesn’t like shaking hands, and nothing should therefore be read into this).
A more useful insight into the lack of mutual understanding between Trump and Merkel is what the two had to say at their joint news conference, of which the official text can be found here
Firstly, it is impossible to avoid noticing the sharp contrast in styles.
As is his way Trump was spontaneous and exuberant, ranging widely over many topics in his usual uninhibited way. Merkel, who like Obama always picks her words carefully and gives away as little as she can whilst peppering her comments with clichés, was clearly uncomfortable with this.
Beyond that however were the clear disagreements on issues of substance. These were so great that at one point Merkel was even forced to admit them and say that she was in Washington to defend German interests and to look for compromises
Well, I’m here as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. I represent German interests. I speak with the President of the United States, who stands up for, as is right, American interests. That is our task, respectively. And I must say that I was very gratified to know the very warm and gracious hospitality with which I have been received here.
We held a conversation where we were trying to address also those areas where we disagree, but to try to bring people together, try to show what is our vantage point, what is the American vantage point, and then try to find a compromise which is good for both sides. Because we need to be fair with each other. Each and every one is expecting for his or her leader that something good comes out of it for their own people.
For Germany, I can say, well, people are different. People have different abilities, have different traits of character, have different origins, have found their way into politics along different pathways. All that is diversity, which is good. Sometimes it’s difficult to find compromises, but that’s what we’ve been elected for. If everything just went like that and without problem, we wouldn’t need politicians to do these jobs.
This is very far from the sort of things that Merkel and Obama would say following Merkel’s meetings with Obama, when she and Obama liked to stress the US and Germany’s commonality of views and interests, not their differences and disagreements with each other.
There was also no word at any point in the news conference of any actual agreement being concluded between the two leaders. Whilst this is not unprecedented, it is usually the case following a meeting between two leaders who are close partners and friends that they announce some agreement or at least some joint initiative, however minimal, in order to conclude the meeting with something positive. Not only did that not happen on this occasion, but there is no evidence in anything Donald Trump said that he was interested in any such thing or was looking for it.
In fact Trump repeatedly said things during the press conference that would have been guaranteed to make Merkel worried and uncomfortable.
Firstly, as is his way, Trump qualified his (very cursory) support for NATO by presenting Merkel again with a demand for money
I reiterated to Chancellor Merkel my strong support for NATO, as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defense. Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years, and it is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe.
Despite what you have heard from the FAKE NEWS, I had a GREAT meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Nevertheless, Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!
This repeated demand for money, which has become the common refrain coming from all the officials of the Trump administration including Vice-President Pence, Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson, and not just Donald Trump himself, is making NATO appear less and less like an alliance based on common values and interests, and more and more like a protection racket.
Perhaps that in truth is what NATO has been all along. The Germans and the US’s other NATO allies do not however like to have it spelled out quite so frankly. Merkel is known to be personally offended by it.
Whilst Trump spoke about NATO in this frankly rather threatening – even Godfatherish – way, he had absolutely nothing to say about the EU. He has previously made no secret of his disdain for the EU. Whilst hosting the ‘Queen of Europe’ he backed off from none of it. Instead of uttering some word of support for the EU, however qualified, he never once mentioned it. Merkel will have noticed, and in light of the Brexit crisis and the challenges she is now facing all across Europe, she now knows she no longer has the US President’s support, and it will cause her concern.
On relations with Russia, where some claim to see signs that Donald Trump is backing off from his desire for detente with Russia (for the record, I don’t), and on the related question of Ukraine, Trump spoke not a word of condemnation for Russia’s actions or of support for Ukraine. His words could scarcely have been more terse or less interested, and again make a startling contrast to what Obama in an identical situation would have said
I also appreciate Chancellor Merkel’s leadership, along with the French President, to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, where we ideally seek a peaceful solution.
On this issue Merkel clearly took the hint, which Trump may have spelled out to her more clearly when they met in private, that Trump wants detente with Russia and does not want the conflict in Ukraine to stand in the way of this, though her choice of words in response were carefully ambiguous and were clearly intended to give her political space
I am very gratified to know that the American administration and also the President, personally, commits himself to the Minsk process. We need to come to a solution of this problem. There has to be a safe and secure solution for Ukraine, but the relationship with Russia has to be improved, as well, once the situation there on the ground is clarified.
Minsk is a good basis, but, unfortunately, we haven’t made yet the headway that we want to. But we are going to work together with our experts in the next few months to come on this issue.
(bold italics added)
This comment is simultaneously a concession to Donald Trump’s desire for detente with Russia – making it seem that Merkel agrees with Trump that an improvement of relations with Russia is a “necessity” – whilst actually imposing a condition that this depends on “clarification” of “the situation on the ground” in Ukraine. What Merkel is saying is that the “necessary” improvement in relations with Russia depends on “a safe and secure solution for Ukraine” to be achieved through implementation of the Minsk Agreement as she interprets it.
Essentially this is a form of words Merkel has hit on in order to justify keeping the sanctions in place.
The trouble with using this sort of coded language is that whilst someone like Obama or indeed Putin would have no difficulty understanding it, it is highly doubtful that Donald Trump – a man not known for doing subtlety – either does or can be bothered to. The result is that by continuing to use such coded language in Trump’s presence Merkel – instead of buying herself political space as she intends – is simply highlighting the difference between herself and Trump.
In truth what this exchange actually does is show how the coming of Donald Trump has made Merkel, with her use of coded language, her intricate policies, and her indirect approach to problems, look out of date and out of touch.
By contrast with his cursory words about Ukraine Donald Trump made unambiguously clear that his foreign policy priority is defeating Jihadi terrorism and ISIS. Thus directly after his almost off the cuff comment on Ukraine Trump said this
Most importantly, our two countries must continue to work together to protect our people from radical Islamic terrorism and to defeat ISIS. I applaud Chancellor Merkel for Germany’s contributions, both civilian and military, as a counter-ISIS coalition member.
(bold italics added)
The problem for Merkel is that for all the brave talk of German help in the anti-ISIS coalition and in Afghanistan, on this key issue which Donald Trump considers his overriding foreign policy priority, Germany compared to Russia has little to offer and little that it can do.
That this is so is shown by how Merkel struggled to say anything about it
And we said that, obviously, defense and security has a lot of different assets and facets to it. One the one hand, it’s supporting missions in Africa, for example. It’s also promoting development assistance, but it’s also helping mission in Africa, for example, in trying to stand up for their own safety and security.
We continue to be in conversation. What was important for us today was that we were able to talk about Afghanistan, talk about, as the President quite rightly said, the continuing mission of Germany in Afghanistan. I am very glad that the United States are intending to continue to commit to the Afghan mission as well.
Together, we fight against Islamist terrorism. Germany is going to step up its work and is going to continue its work in Afghanistan and also in Syria. We’re going to monitor the situation there very closely. We’re going to work on political solutions in Syria, but also in Libya — what we talked about.
These comments are both nervous and empty. They give the impression of Merkel struggling to come up with something meaningful to say. That is one reason why they range so freely and so aimlessly from Africa to Afghanistan to Syria and to Libya in a few short platitudinous sentences. They contain no definite commitments because Germany is in no position to make any.
As if this was not all already difficult enough for Merkel, she also had to listen to a fusillade from Trump trashing her positions on immigration and trade policy.
On immigration Trump made crystal clear his complete rejection of Merkel’s stance on the refugee question, once again emphasising how unlike her he views this issue purely through the prism of anti-terrorism, national security policy and national self-interest
We also recognize that immigration security is national security. We must protect our citizens from those who seek to spread terrorism, extremism and violence inside our borders. Immigration is a privilege, not a right, and the safety of our citizens must always come first, without question.
On trade policy Trump made no secret of his belief that Germany has taken the US for a ride, and that he sees himself first and foremost as the CEO of United States Inc. and not as the leader of the “Free World”, and that he intends to put the US’s trade and business interests first, whilst putting the US’s trading and business rivals (including Germany) in their place.
In an extraordinary but highly revealing slip Trump even at one point referred to the US by mistake as a “very powerful company” before correcting himself and saying “country”.
First of all, I don’t believe in an isolationist policy, but I also believe a policy of trade should be a fair policy. And the United States has been treated very, very unfairly by many countries over the years. And that’s going to stop.
But I’m not an isolationist. I’m a free trader, but I’m also a fair trader. And free trade has led to a lot of bad things happening — you look at the deficits that we have and you look at all of the accumulation of debt. We’re a very powerful company — country. We’re a very strong, very strong country. We’ll soon be at a level that we perhaps have never been before. Our military is going to be strengthened — it’s been depleted.
But I am a trader. I am a fair trader. I am a trader that wants to see good for everybody, worldwide. But I am not an isolationist by any stretch of the imagination. So I don’t know what newspaper you’re reading, but I guess that would be another example of, as you say, fake news…..
On trade with Germany, I think we’re going to do fantastically well. Right now, I would say that the negotiators for Germany have done a far better job than the negotiators for the United States. But hopefully we can even it out. We don’t want victory, we want fairness. All I want is fairness.
Germany has done very well in its trade deals with the United States, and I give them credit for it, but — and I can speak to many other countries. I mean, you look at China, you look at virtually any country that we do business with. It’s not exactly what you call good for our workers.
(bold italics added)
This is language the like of which Merkel has never heard before and which neither of the two previous US Presidents she has previously dealt with – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – would ever have used.
Merkel, whose entire career has been in politics and who has no business background, is peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with this sort of essentially mercantilist thinking, something which incidentally is also true of the rest of her cabinet.
Something else which will have added to Merkel’s concerns will be the gross insensitivity and lack of deference Trump showed to her.
Not only did Trump repeatedly cut in and answer questions before her, but he even made a joke targeting her former friend Obama at her expense when he drew a parallel between the NSA’s surveillance of her mobile phone with his claim that the Obama administration was listening in to his phone conversations
As far as wiretapping, I guess, by this past administration, at least we have something in common perhaps. (Laughter.)
Merkel’s irritation and embarrassment at this quip was all too obvious to those attending the news conference. A more sensitive person than Donald Trump would have anticipated it. He either didn’t do so, or he did but didn’t care. In either case he showed no interest in accommodating the feelings of his guest.
Overall the general impression left from Merkel’s visit is of a strained and unhappy relationship.
On issue after issue – NATO, the EU, immigration, trade, relations with Russia – Trump conceded nothing, and the gulf between Trump and Merkel was all too clear.
On the one foreign policy issue that Trump genuinely cares about – crushing Jihadi terrorism and defeating ISIS – Merkel had nothing to offer and appeared at a loss, with nothing useful to say.
Beyond that was the complete absence of any successful personal chemistry between the two leaders.
Whilst it is going too far to say that they actively dislike each other, their personalities and philosophies are so different that it is impossible to see how they can ever be friends, or even partners. Quite simply Merkel lacks the uninhibitedness and quickness of mind and spirit needed to keep up with Trump – whose ideas she anyway barely understands – or to forge a good relationship with him, whilst Trump for his part is all too obviously concerned not to be taken for her patsy, and finds her ideological way of speaking all but incomprehensible.
Normally when two leaders disagree about so much and have so little in common, the result – usually after various unsuccessful attempts to patch things up – is a total breakdown in their relationship.
The nature of the relationship between the US and Germany however makes that impossible. Unless Merkel ceases to be Chancellor soon or Trump is somehow removed from the White House, then for the next four years they will be stuck with each other in what will almost certainly become an increasingly unhappy and strained relationship. Though almost certainly it is still too early for them to dislike each other, before long they probably will.
The alternative is for one of them to go soon. Since it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Trump is going to be removed from the White House as a result of the ‘Russiagate’ scandal, that puts the question mark on Merkel’s future.
The German elite has had to endure for three years a Chancellor who has done serious damage to Germany’s critical relationship with Russia, and who has brought Germany’s relations with many of its EU partners to the point of crisis. As elections in Germany loom, will they stick with their current Chancellor as Germany’s relations with Washington also now start to become more difficult, or will they finally start to look for someone new?