A Rocky First Date
It was an awkward date. Both recognized they had to get to know each other, but neither one was particularly keen to do so. Nevertheless, they went through the motions with a sense of obligation that was painfully obvious to everyone.
Trump and Merkel are not going to be friends, and they may not ever learn to like each other. But they’re going to have to get along if for no other reason than to serve their respective interests.
That doesn’t make this particular relationship unusual. It’s rare that national leaders become close friends—more the exception than the rule. President Obama was one of those exceptions in his friendship with Chancellor Merkel.
Still, there are a lot of people a German chancellor doesn’t have to get along with personally but has to deal with professionally (the leaders of Turkey and Russia come quickly to mind). Likewise, there are a lot of people that an American president must deal with but doesn’t have to like. That holds true even within close alliances.
German-American relations are no exception, with well-known frictions between a chancellor and a president over the years: Adenauer and Kennedy, Schmidt and Carter, Schröder and Bush.
The media uproar over the visit between Angela Merkel and Donald Trump is overhyped. It was more of a bad date that reinforced to both sides what they might like and don’t like about each other and that will be the basis of a necessary professional relationship.
Merkel and Trump came to the meeting with vastly different points of view on several subjects and significantly different backgrounds and experiences. Their very different personal styles underscore the best that could be expected from such an encounter, which was simply to recognize those contrasts and at the same time say something about what it is that the two countries they represent have to talk about. Nothing particularly unusual in that. And there was plenty of that talk behind closed doors as well.
The Campaigner and the Chancellor
Trump is still getting used to his new position, and his behavior in public with the chancellor was an illustration of how he remains extremely inexperienced and uneasy with his role on the global stage. He remains completely immersed in domestic politics and approaches his encounters with the foreign policy dimension through that same prism he does the media—one of skepticism and even combativeness.
His press conference comments were designed to emphasize, as always, his campaign promises. Whether on fair trade, support from European allies for NATO, or comments about immigration, Trump wasn’t really speaking to the chancellor—he was speaking to his base in the United States.
In many ways, Merkel did the same, effectively referencing those things she knew were important to the public in Germany. From her commitment to Europe, to German engagement in Afghanistan under a NATO flag, to support for an open trading regime, Merkel was also outlining the national agenda in Germany.
Regardless of the enormous difference in style between the chancellor and the president, the basics of national interests for both countries remain fundamentally unchanged. What indeed is different in the Trump team, especially in comparison with his predecessor in the White House, is the approach to certain policies defining and dealing with those interests. Now it is all about the priority of American interests, including expectations of our allies. Now the question is “what can you do for us?” It comes down to the Trump administration redefining the question about how America benefits from all that it spends, defends, and expends from its resources.
These are not new questions and not all illegitimate questions. However, they are set up in a way that seems to portray the possible answers as zero-sum equations. For this administration, they seem to be set up in a type of payback context in which the U.S. is holding too many IOUs from its allies after allegedly having paid far more than its share, whether in defense or export surpluses.
A New Rhetoric
It is not a question as to whether American interests were a priority in the White House in previous administrations, but how those interests were framed has differed. After 9/11, President Bush defined the interests of the United States as demanding that other nations be either “with us or with the terrorists.” In the Cold War, Ronald Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be an evil empire which needed to be added “to the dustbin of history.”
In different times, President Obama and President Clinton both declared that American interests coincided with those of other nations in supporting common projects like expanding NATO, building an open global trade regime, or encouraging European integration.
Through all those phases, Germany was seen as a cornerstone of support for American interests even when conflicts occurred over specific policies. This equation has not fundamentally changed. That was confirmed by speeches given by the vice president, the secretary of defense, and others who have in the meantime expressed exactly that in international platforms over the last few weeks.
Yet now we are in an environment in which a president who has virtually no foreign policy experience is focused primarily on his domestic agenda and views foreign policy as a function of that agenda. His concept of “America First” as a slogan is directed at his political base. Appealing to the base after an electoral victory is not terribly distinct from the attitudes that Presidents Clinton, Bush, or Obama brought to their respective White Houses at the beginning of their terms. Yet that mindset was ultimately changed by external events that reminded those presidents how inextricably interdependent the United States is in dealing with global challenges.
And exactly that same reminder is going to happen to Donald Trump sooner rather than later.
Internationalism in the Face of Isolationism
It is this type of rhetoric that propelled Trump into the White House. It is this type of message that sits well with millions of Americans who are tired of ambiguous wars, economic uncertainty, and inequity. And it is this type of analysis that sits well with those who don’t recognize—or want to recognize—the interconnected world in which they are so very much a part, for better and for worse.
Of course, that is the same type of problem that many European countries are wrestling with right now in dealing with their own respective political debates and arguments. And in both cases the answer is not a default response seeking protection or isolation from these challenges but rather trying to grapple with them together, either in the European Union or in the transatlantic context.
Those are serious questions and issues that we should be debating and challenging each other to generate answers to. We should be doing so not in isolation from each other but rather in coordination with each other.
The chancellor may have expected that this president might not be as familiar with the European debates and responses to these challenges. What she surely did not foresee is the fact that he is still operating in a campaign mode to secure his own role as president many weeks after his inauguration.
Tolerance, not Enthusiasm
Given her long tenure as chancellor, Merkel is aware of the challenges involved in trying to balance domestic and foreign policy priorities in a very noisy and often fragmented democracy. She has also experienced the struggle to balance national interests within a very complicated European Union in competition with each other. But of all the people who have championed the fact that the sum is greater than its parts when it comes to the EU, the chancellor has been in the forefront.
All the presidents who came before Donald Trump have always championed the sum of the transatlantic alliance being greater than its parts even amid the constant battle over how to make that sum greater—not only making each individual member of the alliance great.
Again, the Merkel and Trump are not going on lunch or dinner dates together with great enthusiasm. But they are going to have to learn how to deal with each other if for no other reason than the interests of Germany and the United States depend on working together.
That’s going to include a lot of arguing and debate. It’s going to mean a change in style from previous administrations. Those who are engaging with the White House would probably do well not to fret as much about things like handshakes, rhetorical punch lines, or tweets and spend more time understanding how American policymaking is going to be heavily influenced by domestic policy priorities during the Trump era. It would be far better to focus on how the substance of those policymaking decisions is going to emerge and less on the style of President Trump. It would be even better if those who have a stake in policy decisions in Washington are well-versed and well-engaged in all dimensions of the process itself to the extent that they can be. It is already clear that there’s going to be a loud and continuous battle over policy directions throughout during the Trump administration. The outcome is going to be important not only for Americans; it’s going to be very important for the partners of the United States. Most especially Germany.