Angela Merkel’s visit to Washington tests Germany’s maturity

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend the Women’s Entrepreneurship Finance event during the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg, Germany July 8, 2017. REUTERS/Michael Kappeler, Pool - RC1C813C67A0
Editor's note:

The German-American relationship has reached a post-war nadir—Berlin is the object of the Trump administration‘s special animosity, writes Constanze Stelzenmüller. How will and should Germany respond? This piece originally appeared in German in Süddeutsche Zeitung.

It’s become pretty clear that the Trump presidency is a historic stress test for American democracy and the post-war liberal world order. Yet it is also proving to be a test of Europe’s maturity—and it is not quite as clear that this insight has really percolated down to European capitals and specifically to my hometown, Berlin. To quote a European diplomat in Washington: “Sometimes we do wonder whether they’ve realized at home just how bad things are.”

This week, the rest of the world will be able to watch Europe’s answer to the Trump problem in the form of a presumably instructive direct comparison: first, a multi-day all-stops-pulled official state visit to Washington by the French president Emmanuel Macron, followed on Friday by a brief working visit by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

It is high time, and there is much at stake for Europe. In the Trump administration, the trade protectionists and the Iran hawks currently have the upper hand. On May 1, the US might apply punitive tariffs against the European Union; and May 12 could see a U.S. departure from the Iran agreement; both are grounds for deep concern across Europe. For both visitors, the trip is difficult for another reason: Too many concessions to Trump will call out the critics and enemies at home. But that is already it in terms of similarities between the two visits.

Of all the European heads of state and government, Emmanuel Macron has best understood how to respond to the Trump phenomenon. Paris participated in the punitive strikes against Syria‘s ruler Bashar al-Assad. France spends 1.7 percent of its GDP on defense and intends to reach 2 percent by 2024, thereby fulfilling the promise made by all European states to NATO in 2014.

The American and the Frenchman see themselves—and each other—as men of action whose success is based on their ability to disrupt established rules and institutions. Nevertheless, Macron has also been able to draw red lines: whether on the Iran Agreement (“The U.S. has no Plan B”) or on the Paris climate agreement, where he has pointed out that we have “no Planet B.” These days French diplomacy in Washington wears a slightly smug smile.

The German-American relationship, in contrast, has reached a post-war nadir—Berlin is the object of the Trump administration‘s special animosity. The ethno-nationalists dislike German generosity to Syrian refugees. The protectionists hate German trade surpluses. The hawks are angry at Berlin for not participating in the airstrikes against Syria. The Russia skeptics are upset about the gas pipeline project Nordstream 2. Even the relatively pro-European Pentagon is underwhelmed by the disrepair of the German armed forces, and a German defense budget that does not even reach 1.2 percent of GDP.

Add to that the fact that the recent personnel changes in the U.S. administration have meant that Germany has lost important interlocutors like the former national security advisor HR McMaster. His successor John Bolton accused chancellor Merkel during the refugee crisis of exposing Germany and other states to the risk of terrorism. In his 2007 autobiography, “Surrender is not an Option” he describes his time as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, and gleefully recounts his battles with his German counterparts. Until recently, he was chairman of the board of the right-wing Gatestone Institute, which for years disseminated fake news about Germany.

The president himself and the chancellor speak on the phone with each other regularly. But their characters could not be more alien to each other. So for Angela Merkel—who was celebrated by the U.S. media only a few months ago as the “leader of the free world”—even this brief and businesslike visit could become quite uncomfortable.

Should Germany just close its eyes and take one for the team? Actually, it’s not that easy. Some of the Trump administration’s attitudes and criticisms may be irrational—but others are very accurate.

Remember 2014? In February of that year, Germany’s president, the foreign minister, and the defense minister promised at the Munich Security Conference that Germany would—in accordance with its increased economic and political power—take on more responsibility in the world. But today, German foreign policy appears overwhelmed by tensions within Germany, within Europe, and beyond it. Attempts by Berlin to paper over its lack of ideas strike even our friends (which do still exist in Washington), as embarrassed or hypocritical.

This is all the more incomprehensible because of an amazing household surplus of €37 billion euros, nearly $45 billion: money that could be used for long overdue investments, like bridges, roads, regional hospitals, and fiber-optic cables. That would not just help reduce Germany’s trade surplus—it could also help assuage some of the anger of voters who voted for the Alternative for Germany in last September’s elections because they felt they were being ignored. And there would still be a lot of money left over to modernize the German armed forces.

But the problem doesn’t stop there. When will Germany have a foreign policy that does not just react to events and the demands of others? That recognizes that despite or perhaps even because of globalization, the risk of worldwide conflict has increased even among allies? That recognizes that an open Europe has enemies as well?

Europe lives and prospers like no other region of the world on the global mobility of people, goods, and data.

Tribalism and pulling up the drawbridges against everything alien is becoming fashionable everywhere. But Europe lives and prospers like no other region of the world on the global mobility of people, goods, and data. If America retreats, we Germans therefore have a truly existential interest in protecting this foundation of our wealth and our security. So we must invest in Europe and beyond it. That, in turn, could help re-define and elevate our relationship with America—a relationship that remains essential for us.

I can imagine the chancellor’s light and mildly sarcastic voice saying in Washington on Friday: None of this is in the coalition treaty that forms the basis of my government; my political capital these days is limited; I don’t have a lot of time left; and my country is on the cusp of great changes. And one might even think that not all of my ministers agree with me all of the time! And she would be right.

But then she might continue like this: My friend Emmanuel Macron’s predecessor General De Gaulle once said he had une certaine idée de la France—a certain ideal of France. Well, I have the same for Germany, my country: I want a Germany that is open, responsible, a good neighbor, and a good citizen of the world. Also, we keep our promises. That is the goal now, and will be my legacy.