Pompeo’s No-Show in Berlin: An Occasion for Less Outrage and Considering More Options
When U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo suddenly canceled his visit to Berlin citing “pressing issues,” many Germans felt insulted. It was taken as another slap in the face from the Trump administration. One newspaper proclaimed that German-American relations were shattered. This is nonsense. Just as there is too much fixation on Trump’s tweets, Germans clearly do not yet understand the Trump administration’s priorities. Cabinet-level visits to Germany are not high on the list these days.
Just as there is too much fixation on Trump’s tweets, Germans clearly do not yet understand the Trump administration’s priorities.
Two years in, the Trump administration is busy disrupting things. Both at home and on the world stage, it is led by a master of unpredictability. And so as he challenges the style and substance of the presidency itself or resets U.S. foreign policy in multiple directions, Trump is primarily focused on being a game changer. Some examples: meeting with the North Korean leader, confronting China with trade sanctions, pulling out of international agreements (Iran, Paris), blasting allies (especially Germany) for being delinquent in NATO obligations, and threatening allies over trade issues.
Many Germans have been shocked by all this, but they can’t seem to get beyond the outrage. That is a bad strategy in dealing with the Trump team.
Trump’s primary directive is: flex your muscles. Stare down your opponents, bluff where you can, and deal where you must. That is exactly the strategy that he used as a real estate tycoon in New York. He’s not concerned about niceties; he’s concerned with coming out on top. By that logic, Pompeo’s decision to fly to Iraq, bypassing Berlin, was a no-brainer. Following the Trump playbook, it was more important for Pompeo to stare down the Iranians than to have coffee in Berlin. That it was a high-profile demonstration, sending an aircraft carrier to the region and landing theatrically in Baghdad unannounced, fits the Trump administration’s modus operandi. A stop in Berlin was not part of that script.
There is no doubt that Trump holds a large chip on his shoulder when it comes to Germany. He knows he’s not liked there, and he knows that Barack Obama was almost canonized there. He also knows that Merkel is a lot more popular around the world than he will ever be. But he also sees Germany as the example of “free rider” excesses and as a whipping post to demonstrate how he can be tough dealing with that. Even the fact that his family tree reaches back into Germany doesn’t seem to make a difference here.
None of that is going to change, neither in the next two years or potentially in the next six years. It does no good for Germans to feel slighted or insulted by Trump’s tweets or Pompeo’s cancelled visit. The same holds true for millions of Americans who are not thrilled with the president. It does no good to wake up each morning and fixate on the next controversy. The more important response deals with pursuing an agenda that will have longer legs than the 45th president. That, of course, includes battles over domestic policies and clashes in which the Germans have no voice. However, those instances where the Germans do have a voice in dealing with Trump and his policymaking machinery require not only German policy being coherent, but also that Germany lead the effort to make a European-wide policy coherent. That is the priority Germany should be focused on.
Germany has a lead function and role in all of this and should be focused on concentrating its capacities and contributions to strengthening that effort.
Whether it be dealing with trade clashes, relations with China, cybersecurity, Russia, or a host of other issues in which Germany and the EU have a huge stake, it is vital that the European responses to these challenges be more visible and viable than they are now. Germany has a lead function and role in all of this and should be focused on concentrating its capacities and contributions to strengthening that effort. Europe is not in good shape right now and, following the EU elections this month, there will be a need to take stock of where it is headed. How that path will be shaped is greatly dependent upon what happens in Berlin
Given the turbulence and transitions shaping the future of the transatlantic community, which it still is in many dimensions, this is not a time to be concerned with apparent insults; it should be a time to be concerned with taking initiative where it is needed. Trump is both a symptom and a cause of that challenge.
Trump’s future in the White House is limited by the U.S. Constitution. What is not limited is the capacity to either come to grips with the disruption he represents or to give in to the temptation to wait it out in the hope that things will revert to what used to be labeled “normal.”
As Lampedusa once warned us “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” We all have to face the question about what we want to have stay the same and what really needs to change.