Transatlantic tensions in spotlight as Merkel meets Trump
Angela Merkel visits Washington on Thursday for what will be one of the trickiest diplomatic trips of her long chancellorship. Unlike French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel has failed to strike up a rigorous rapport with Donald Trump, who relishes his role as disruptor of the established Western order that she embodies.
While the White House has asserted that the US-German relationship is “a bedrock of the transatlantic relationship and the NATO alliance,” bilateral relations are unquestionably cooler under the Trump presidency. The personal factor here is important, with Merkel’s style and values colliding with those of Trump, whereas she had a very strong relationship with his predecessor Barack Obama.
This was symbolized in March 2017, when Merkel first met Trump and he appeared to refuse to shake her hand at a press conference. Added to this are subsequent tensions over multiple issues — including climate change — and the two did not speak for over five months until a March 1 call.
The lack of personal chemistry was softened by the cordial relationship Merkel and her team had previously enjoyed with Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. However, it remains very uncertain whether the Germans will have the same accord with their more hard-line replacements Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.
However, beyond these personality issues, Trump is also aware that, since last September’s German election — which saw Merkel’s ruling CDU party and its sister CSU organization lose ground — she is very likely in her last term as chancellor and, unfortunately for much of the international community, a weaker figure on the global stage. This is a big turnaround in the space of only around half a year, given that Merkel had, for perhaps a decade, been indisputably the most important political leader in continental Europe, and had claims to being the most influential leader in the Western world in the Trump era.
Unlike French President Emmanuel Macron, Merkel has failed to strike up a rigorous rapport with Donald Trump.
To put her achievements into wider international perspective, three US presidents (George W. Bush, Obama and Trump), four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Macron), and the same number of UK prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May) have served during her tenure, which began in 2005. Merkel has also already exceeded the previous record of Margaret Thatcher as Europe’s longest-serving female leader, which was 11 years.
Yet there are now doubts about whether she will serve a full fourth term to 2021, by which time she would match Helmut Kohl’s 16 years in office and surpass Konrad Adenauer’s service from 1949 to 1963 as Germany’s first post-war chancellor. Indeed, a full fourth term would see Merkel — who is still widely admired across much of the world and is the longest-serving G7 and EU leader — only sitting behind Otto von Bismarck, who served for almost two decades from 1871 to 1890 during a period in which he was a dominant force in European affairs, having previously helped drive the unification of Germany.
Reflecting his disruptive diplomacy, and possibly Merkel’s weakness as well, Trump has been much more critical than Obama on several long-standing issues in the bilateral relationship, especially trade and defense spending. On trade, Trump has called Germany “very bad” because of its significant trade surplus — with exports larger than imports — and the president has particularly singled out the nation’s car exports, which he has threatened to put tariffs on.
Merkel is acutely aware of this irritant in bilateral relations and has asserted that Germany’s trade surplus is on the pathway to narrowing due to higher domestic demand. Last year, for instance, saw the first decline in the nation’s trade surplus since 2009, from the 2016 record high of $304.44 billion to $300.9 billion.
A second sore centers around Germany’s failure to spend 2 percent of its GDP on defense — a key NATO goal. Indeed, the country spent “only” 1.13 percent of GDP on its military in 2017. Again, Merkel acknowledges the vulnerability here and asserts that the nation is committed to the 2 percent target, despite Germany’s post-war disregard for military force.
It is into this cauldron of discontent that Merkel steps on Thursday, as she hopes to win Trump around on at least two points. Firstly, with the prospect of US trade tariffs hanging over the EU, she will lobby for an extension to Europe’s exemption from Washington’s trade sanctions on steel and aluminum imports, which is scheduled to expire on May 1.
Secondly, she will push Trump on the Iran nuclear deal, for which he has given the other signatories — Germany, France, the UK, Russia and China — a May 12 deadline to “fix the terrible flaws” or he will refuse to extend US sanctions relief on Iran.
On both agendas, agreements are possible. Yet, especially if Macron fails in his own charm offensive, it appears unclear whether Merkel will be able to do deals herself given her troubled relationship with Trump. Failure to secure any breakthroughs would only up the tempo in transatlantic tensions in advance of the G7 summit in June.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics