When Barack Obama meets with Angela Merkel in Berlin next week, it will be the last time they will meet as President and Chancellor. Not only is it an opportunity for him to say farewell to one of his closest partners over these past eight years, but it is also a chance to prepare her for his successor in the White House and the voters who put him there. Although Donald Trump is certainly not the person Obama or most Germans were hoping to see elected, he will be the president for the next four years (at least). Chancellor Merkel will thus work with her third American president, each extraordinarily different from the other, in the twelve years of her tenure in Berlin. Merkel managed to have good relations with both Obama and Bush; how she will fare with Trump remains to be seen. Her recent statement suggests that she is—at a minimum—hesitant about her expectations of Trump and she chose her words carefully to emphasize the need for practical cooperation and shared values. She now has a new challenge in trying to come to grips with not only the man, but also his agenda.
What Obama and Merkel will discuss is to remain behind closed doors, but it will surely involve a shared set of concerns about the president-elect. With Trump’s campaign rhetoric unsettling many Europeans on a variety of issues—from the future of U.S. commitment to NATO and relations with Russia, to his criticism of the chancellor’s immigration policy, threats about withdrawing from the treaty with Iran, refusal of any future TTIP negotiations, and generally signaling an isolationist trend in American foreign policy—the conversation is bound to reflect a good deal of concern about the future of transatlantic relations in general, and German-American relations in particular.
President Obama will be hard put to hide his disappointment about his successor. As he leaves office, he will be confronted with a potential roll back of both his domestic and foreign policy accomplishments, and some of them, like the deal with Iran and confronting Vladimir Putin over Ukraine, were done in tandem with Merkel. The chancellor will probably say that she has no choice but to work with Trump one way or another. The question now is whether she will be able to position Germany within Europe as a leader in dealing with Trump and his administration. That is going to be a challenge at two levels:
- Domestic politics. Merkel is facing elections in September 2017. While she has not formally indicated whether she’s going to run for a fourth term, it is likely that she will. The current challenge Germany faces in dealing with its own domestic turmoil over the refugee crisis is causing anxiety about the rise of the right-wing movement and the Alternative for Germany (Afd) party. Generating a governing coalition in the wake of the elections will need to anticipate that the AfD will be represented in the Bundestag. Merkel can likely forge a coalition to isolate that populist group, but she needs to sustain her own political strength in the coming year to have the opportunity.
- Europe. Merkel is faced with the challenge of keeping Europe together despite domestic forces trying to tear it apart. Since Brexit, we have seen more populist backlash movements emerging in France, the Netherlands, and Austria, and nationalist governments elected in Poland and Hungary, among others. In this climate, the European Union is struggling to sustain momentum. Forging common positions on defense, immigration, and trade is increasingly difficult. But a Europe positioned to act in unison can be far stronger in relations with other major countries like Russia, China, and the United States. Merkel is the key to achieving that.
The signals coming from Donald Trump with regard to Europe during the past year have been very different from Obama’s, and have questioned the degree of U.S. commitment to the transatlantic community, ranging from security to trade relations. Trump was even a fan of Brexit, something Merkel and Obama argued vehemently against. While Trump’s track record on these issues is not extensive, it is worrying to many within the NATO community and in much of the European Union, and is causing uncertainty about the future and could be paving the way for some countries—like Russia—to encourage the unraveling of the transatlantic network of values and interests.
But rather than reminisce about the past, Obama and Merkel might share their visions of the future. President Obama might suggest that the unfolding of the Trump era in Washington is not an occasion for total despair. The rhetoric of Trump’s campaign might be tempered in the coming weeks and months as he assembles his administration. Watching the designations of key positions emerge in his cabinet will reveal whether there are openings for dialogue with Europe—or if we can expect confrontation. That depends on both domestic and foreign policy challenges.
Barring the occurrence of an immediate major foreign policy crisis, the pressure of domestic affairs will likely consume the new president. In some ways this might resemble the early period of the George W. Bush administration…until the attacks on September 11 changed his path. Where foreign policy priorities emerge in the first phase of Trump’s tenure, they will be likely delegated to the Secretary of State or Defense—like President Obama did in his initial days while he coped with the financial crisis and focused on domestic issues like budget battles with Congress. To what extent Trump needs to emphasize and engage in hardline foreign policy positions, such as dealing with Iran, the war in Syria, or trade conflicts with China, will depend on how much progress he can make on delivering domestic results in line with his promises about fixing problems at home. But that strategy can be easily disturbed by a clash with Russian troops on the border of a NATO member, a violent collision of naval ships in the South China Sea, or another threatening nuclear test by North Korea.
This is a trying time for Chancellor Merkel. She needs to secure her domestic political base in Germany while attempting to steer her EU partners toward a coherent set of policy positions on major challenges: stabilizing the euro, Russian aggression, terrorist threats, relations with Turkey in dealing with the refugee crisis, and ultimately the sustainability of the European Union itself in the face of populist forces. And now she faces an unpredictable leader in Washington with a very different set of perspectives and policies from his predecessor.
This is not totally unfamiliar terrain for the chancellor. She is dealing with the unpredictable in the UK after Brexit, in France as it heads for turbulent elections in the Spring of 2017, in Warsaw and Budapest where nationalist forces have control of the governments and challenge the direction of the EU. Populist forces are being unleashed throughout Europe and Trump’s election will likely encourage them. But if there was ever a time for Europe to face all these challenges with more focus on forging a unified response, it is now.
This is not a time to complain about the American election. That is over. We know Donald Trump will be in the White House over the next four years and will have a unique opportunity—with the help of a Republican majority in Congress—to reshape domestic and foreign policy. It will be a knock-down, drag-out fight at many levels over the next few years. The results of this election reveal a very evenly divided country, even if the power structure in Washington is now in the hands of one political camp. That will generate an enormous battle over domestic and foreign policy issues that will play out primarily in the Senate, but also across that national divide.
But there is also an opportunity to rethink and renew the role of the U.S. at home and abroad. This does not require a catharsis as we experienced after 9/11. It does, however, require that we re-calibrate how, when, where, and why the United States needs to engage not only in renewing itself at home, but in redefining its responsibilities on the global stage.
For Germans and many Europeans, there is nothing to be gained from breast-beating or proclaiming the collapse of the Western world. It is more the time for those who are committed to the values and interests that Chancellor Merkel noted in her comments about the new president to find common ground. This is a time when the rich, wide, and deep connections between Germany and the United States can be employed to sustain the dialogue over what we have created over the past seventy years. The web of interactions—beginning with those at the governmental level and running right through all levels of both societies—is enormous. There is, to be sure, a good deal of friction that comes along with this close connection and we see it in the arguments over privacy, trade negotiations, security policies, and attitudes toward a wide range of social and cultural themes. And yet, these clashes often mirror the same arguments we have within our respective domestic frameworks, and we cannot and should not claim an “us” versus “them” outlook across the Atlantic.
Now is the time for those who see that the sum is greater than its parts to assert that belief. Obama sees it. Merkel sees it. The hope is that Trump will see it.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.